More than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the Confederacy of the United States had surrendered at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, the news of the Union’s victory in the Civil War reached enslaved people in Texas.
Imagine that moment.
You are a Negro slave in Texas and all you have ever known is the violence of forced bondage and servitude. Your parents were likely enslaved, and as far as you knew, your children would likely be enslaved too — human cattle bred, branded, and traded as forced labor. Your body was the property of white people, who perpetuated a system of oppression that deemed you less than human. Your life could be ended at any moment.
And then on June 19th, 1865 deep in the heart of Texas, the Union army arrives and reads aloud before the city of Galveston federal orders freeing you from slavery and bondage.
Imagine the hope, the completely unexpected and shocking hope, that must have existed for those, suddenly former slaves, being told they were free.
This is the moment – the feeling – we commemorate when we celebrate Juneteenth. Some refer to it as Jubilee Day. And jubilation is indeed a good description of what that moment must have felt like.
We all know this moment did not end Black people’s struggle for freedom and equality in America. Our journey to true freedom and justice continues to this day. This journey has shown us moments of light and jubilation where true freedom seemed possible. But it is also a journey that has been punctuated by dire moments of darkness, where all we had was our faint hope that someday it will get better.
This Juneteenth comes at a moment of uprising in America. An uprising that has inspired hope in Black people, and it seems, also in America as a whole. It is a hope I have felt strongly since Americans of every shade and color stood up to say: Black Lives Matter. It took more than two years for news of freedom to reach those enslaved in Texas, but this Juneteenth comes on the heels of an 8:46 video that shook the world instantly. It showed clearly the persistent reality of police brutality in America, as a white police officer kneeled on George Floyd’s neck until he gasped his last breath and screamed for his mama. It was murder plain and simple. Right there on everyone’s smartphone to see.
News traveled fast. The nation’s reaction and revulsion was swift. And it wasn’t just Black people who expressed outrage. It seemed the whole nation mourned for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many black people murdered at the hands of police. The anger and despair gave energy to a movement. And this movement has broadened what is possible. It has rejuvenated a beleaguered nation that simply has had enough.
So, yes, this Juneteenth, perhaps more than others in recent memory, I do feel hope. Hope that real change is possible. That true freedom is possible.
And there have been other signs just this week that real freedom is possible, and from an unlikely source, The Supreme Court. This week transgender people are a little closer to the freedom to express their identities without losing their jobs. Dreamers are a little closer to the freedom to live their lives in the light, and not in the darkness and shadows far too many immigrants are forced to hide in.
I also know that hope alone, that jubilee alone, that momentary outrage and uprisings can get us only so far. By themselves, they are not enough to force justice and roll back centuries of structural racism. We must use the hope in this moment to fuel sustained, meaningful, transformational change. We must think back on the moment those slaves first heard of freedom. We must acknowledge now that we carry that torch of freedom for our generation. We must do all we can to keep the hope of this moment energized. My hope is tempered only by the grave stakes at hand.
This Juneteenth, I encourage everyone to take action. Join a mobilization taking place in your community. Share your reflections and thoughts online. Join me, if you like, in registering voters.
But most importantly, honor the Jubilation and Hope that marks this Juneteenth by continuing our march to freedom.