Juneteenth 2023

It feels as though perhaps we would be remiss were we not to share a few reflections of homage to Juneteenth this year. Most likely our friends, family, followers and #barberfam are familiar with the significance of this day, but just in case- here’s a quick summary of what was only declared a national holiday two years ago:

On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared freedom for enslaved people in Confederate States. June 19, 1865, Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and announced the end of slavery, effectively emancipating the remaining enslaved individuals in Texas. This momentous event became known as Juneteenth, a combination of “June” and “nineteenth.” –Senior Airman Jaliil Smit, 2023

In a group discussion at church recently, we were considering this event as the official commemoration of America’s dream deferred. The significant delay on the delivery of notification of the proclamation of our emancipation can hardly be attributed to much other than its designed priority for states profiting from the institution of slavery. Many of us were taught that Abraham Lincoln “freed the slaves,” though his motives for this proclamation were in the interest of preserving a union that arguably never existed; it could likely be better described as preserving a monopoly of power within the nation, regardless of which way the pendulum would swing concerning its values. Therefore the repugnant injustice of over two years of continued practice of slavery as an institution was relatively consistent with the purpose and outcomes of the Civil War.

This past spring, HALO led a community group in a Race and #RealTalk series on Critical Race Theory. There has continued to be controversy over the assault on freedom as it pertains to the access to learn and the right to teach truthful history in public schools due to government leaders who are still unable to reconcile their reverence for the country’s European forefathers with the reality of their actions. And while there has been much protest over this legally sanctioned censorship, many of us also continue to be distracted by the discord rather than motivated to engage in seeking the truth that was never formally taught to most of us in a public setting. And for my part, this distraction continues to defer the dream so many claim to be uniquely American.

Critical Race Theory (CRT) consists of 5-6 tenets established by a collective of African American lawyers, named by Kimberly Crenshaw and described as “a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship.” (George, 2021). One tenet of CRT asserts that race is a social construct, not a biological one. In our program series exploring these tenets, we read about the origins of the racial terms “black” and “white,” which were products of the slave trade between countries of the Iberian peninsula and North Africa— wherein sub-Saharan darker skinned Africans regarded as less valuable based on the arbitrary standard of proximity to Europeans- i.e. “whiteness.” Between this system of colorism and the strife among Christians, Jews and Muslims of the time- these terms were adopted to designate a social hierarchy whereby Europeans were the standard for civilized humanity against which all appearances, customs and values were measured (Sweet, 1997).

Such a complex history dating as far back as the 9th predates the context of racism and slavery in what we now call the United States (lest we forget the circumstances of the nation’s inception on a land that already had many names from its indigenous people) is exhaustive for a blog post. Still, reflecting on the history of race as a construct resonates in the same space that came to mind of America’s dreams and freedom’s message deferred. The end of the civil war nominally ended slavery in most of the south, but did not dismantle the underlying social hierarchy upholding the construct of race and its derivative discriminatory practices. This is essentially because the war was partly about the states’ rights to continue profiting off labor of the enslaved, this had little to do with the human rights of African Americans. While it is true is that while there were some abolitionists who were truly committed to protecting the humanity of a people who were horribly treated and exploited for financial gains, the war itself occurred because southern states were being taxed for imported goods upon which they relied (Clark, 2017), These taxes were beneficial to northern states and erected an economically burdensome disadvantage to less affluent European Americans who therefore wanted to secede from the national union. Such a division would compromise the gravity of power the US could establish at the international level and, of course, the power they could maintain domestically. Therefore, the southern efforts to conserve their economic sovereignty through slavery and secession was inexpedient enough for the government to intervene. 

As a result, the brevity of the reconstruction period not only blocked the progress of newly emancipated African Americans- it also left many southern European Americans disenfranchised and consequently vehemently embittered towards the north, the government, and African Americans. This bitterness festered with the already deeply entrenched racism which was also socially manufactured within the United States’ political system throughout slavery as a means to sustain the social hierarchy on which the upper class depended to maintain their status and influence. Between this animosity and the lack of the government’s investment in establishing equality, equity and Justice for African Americans, indigenous people, and other immigrants who were also separately exploited and disenfranchised for their labor— society was positioned to accept and enforce the long term practice of Jim Crow laws and other governmentally sanctioned racist policies that perpetuated inequality and abhorrent abuse of power we still witness to this day. Naturally, therefore, a significant pcrtion of the southern population would conveniently be presumed ignorant of slavery having been abolished for years.

All of this is to say that while most of us generally acknowledge the fact that race (not to be confused with ethnicity) is a social construct and not a biological reality- the nebulous quality of our collective awareness of our history has contributed to the persistent consensual reinforcement of systemic racism. By identifying with a construct that was conceived specifically to deem non-Europeans (I.e. “blacks”) as less than human and less entitled to the constitutional rights for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness than their “white” counterparts— instead of identifying with our mutual humanity and vulnerability to higher powers that are invested in keeping us divided— we contribute to the perpetuation of discrimination and oppression. This is the delayed message to the majority of Americans which keeps our country from actualizing its potential greatness. It behooves us to heed the truth of history’s message and transcend this artificial hierarchical construct. We can identify instead with the respective beauty of our cultures and the enduring spirit of people determined to survive so that we may collectively work towards a society that truly values freedom and embraces everyone’s authenticity with equal opportunity to thrive in joy and Love. Because until we do, none of us will be free.

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