Reflections on Juneteenth: Why Was it Missing From My History Class in School
Despite the fact that President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 declaring all Black slaves in America free, it wasn’t until June 19, 1865, over two years later, that many Black slaves learned of their freedom. Since that time, Juneteenth, or June 19th has been an honored and sacred date for many African Americans in this country. But many people in our country (African Americans included) are only recently starting to learn about the date and its historic significance for African Americans and for our country.
The recent explosion of Juneteenth knowledge and interest can be traced back to the racial unrest and protests that occurred last year during the pandemic after a series of horrific deaths (i.e. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery) were callously caused by law enforcement. As African Americans and others cried out for justice, they also spoke of using Juneteenth 2020 as a day of remembrance and solidarity.
Unfortunately, I did not learn about Juneteenth until I took an African American Studies course at a prestigious, predominantly white urban university. It was the first time in my life that I had been in an academic setting with all Black classmates and my first ever Black professor/teacher. I remember during the first week of classes my professor asked my class to share how we personally celebrated Juneteenth. Upon hearing the question, I felt a pit of despair in my stomach as I wondered if the fact that I had attended predominately white schools my entire life would once again mark me as different and strange, but this time it would be in a class of all-Black students. I had no idea how to respond to the question because I had never heard of Juneteenth, much less celebrated it.
I was about to raise my hand to admit what I considered to be my shame of not knowing about the important date when I looked around the class and noticed the awkward silence in the room. Like me, most of my classmates looked confused and no one was raising their hand. My professor then took another approach to the question by asking everyone to stand up. He then asked students that knew about Juneteenth to sit down. Two out of the 17 students present sat down and an audible gasp could be heard by those of us standing. At that moment, my anxiety turned to anger as I began to doubt everything I had learned, and not learned in school about my Black history in this country.
My professor went on to lead a discussion on why so few of us had ever learned about Juneteenth. He also shared his own journey with us which I felt was quite unique. His family was from the south and his grandmother, like her grandmother before her, proudly displayed a Juneteenth flag on her front porch every June. He grew up celebrating Juneteenth with his family every year, but they never celebrated the 4th of July because in his words, “that holiday was never meant to honor or include us”. I was blown away by his candor and his willingness to share intimate details with us about his life as a black man growing up in the 1950s in the south. His openness made it feel safe for everyone in the class to share about our lives and experiences with racism as well. I looked forward to going to my African American Studies class twice a week that semester because it felt more like going to Church than going to a class. It was also one of the first times in my life that I was able to comfortably participate in discussions about race and slavery in America in a classroom setting without feeling like the whole class was looking to me to represent the Black point of view. I had not realized how heavy that burden was until I didn’t feel a need to do it in that class, and it was liberating!
I feel our K-12 educational system has failed when it comes to universally teaching about the brutality of slavery and the Jim Crow laws that followed, For over two centuries beginning in the 1600s, the enslavement of Black people in the United States created generational wealth, opportunity, and prosperity for millions of white Americans. As American slavery evolved and white wealth grew, an elaborate and enduring mythology about the inferiority of Black people was created to legitimize, perpetuate, and defend the virtues of slavery. Unfortunately this mythology survived slavery’s formal abolition and the ramifications of this mindset continue to destructively impact modern day African Americans. It is in the spirit of survival by Black enslaved heroes (Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass, to name a couple) and everyday people that were brutalized daily and classified as less than human that we celebrate our resilience, survival, strength and freedom on Juneteenth each year.
Yesterday, on June 17, 2021 approximately 150 years after slavery ended in our country, President Joe Biden signed the bill officially creating the “Juneteenth National Independence Day” federal holiday. It’s now time for all American schools K-12 to update their curricula and teach all children about the rich, complicated and devastating history of slavery and White Supremacy in our country.