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The Spirit of Juneteenth

By Kara Roseborough

Clap to Let Them Know

I read a Twitter thread online awhile back about why Black folks clap before we start something, be it a dance, a risky feat, a speech. The reply was that we have to clap to let the ancestors know that we’re ready and that we want them with us. It was a joke, but something rings so true about that to me. We clap to signify that we are moving with all of the past and present movers and shakers. We clap to send ripples through the generational scars of our people. We clap to be in rhythm. We clap because we can, because we were taught to, and because no one taught us at all. We clap because no force, no regime, no chains, no system can stop us from dancing forward with all of the grace of our ancestors and all of the hope for our posterity.

That’s a lot of power in a single clap.

Juneteenth, a holiday in the United States celebrating the end of slavery, feels like one of those collective claps. It is a moment to recognize everything that Black people have been through in the western world, a chance to denounce slavery, violence, and racism, and an intentional celebration of all that can be. For some, there is a feeling that Juneteenth only acknowledges our past, but the effects of slavery persist in the present. It’s important to acknowledge the weight of the socio-economic, political, and emotional legacy that the fight for freedom has had on all communities. With that mentality, Juneteenth is not just for the Black community, nor just a United States holiday. It symbolizes an intentional end to one of the most deplorable institutions on this planet.

What is Juneteenth Anyway?

Juneteenth (also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, and Liberation Day) recognizes the day that enslaved people in Texas were freed by the Union Army, nearly two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The name combines the words “June” and “nineteenth.” Like many things, this Black Freedom Day has an asterisk next to it. Although Union General Gordan Granger gave his official declaration of the end of slavery on June 19th, 1865, slavery persisted in Kentucky and Delaware until the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

Even still, Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation was less of a moral undertaking and more of a political strategy to dismantle the foundation of the Confederacy. Why does this matter? Because the ending of slavery and the ratification of the 13th Amendment didn’t magically create a racial utopia. Even in his statement, General Granger regarded Black Americans will disdain. The fight for true equality has persisted ever since. After all, Black Americans were newly recognized citizens in a country whose founding document called them three-fifths of a person. Three-fifths. And that was just so rich southern white men got more political sway.

We've been cutting into the chains that bind the U.S. to those ideals for over 150 years. So yes, for that and so many other reasons, it's not about July 4th for Black American communities. It’s about Juneteenth. Now more than ever.

Today’s Juneteenth celebrations consist of parades, neighborhood barbeques, art exhibits, dance concerts, music concerts, reenactments, and more. In a world where Black pain is constantly on display, it is healing to have a holiday dedicated to Black freedom and joy. While we can acknowledge all of the work left to do, and certainly that needed to be done in 1865, it seems fitting to celebrate the day America took a dramatic step towards embracing its founding values. Thomas Jefferson (a definitively problematic slave-holding president) left us with this gem: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (The Declaration of Independence).

The founding fathers didn’t all agree about how this nation should operate, who would have rights and who wouldn’t, but it’s not about them anymore. It’s about us and our pursuits of happiness. This celebration is for us. We can take those founding values and give them meaning by dismantling exclusionary institutions and ideologies.

The Spirit of Juneteenth

COVID-19 pandemic has given many individuals and institutions time and urgency to reflect on their racial, ethnic, and gender-expansive recognition, representation, and inclusivity. It has always been important to acknowledge the impacts of western colonialism, institutional racism, and the bastions of white supremacy that endure. What has changed, though, is the acceptability of turning a blind eye to the truth. Our art can serve many purposes. That being said, to move forward with gusto, to clap and let the ancestors (and our peers) know we are ready, we can use our art to spearhead the global change we hope to achieve. The spirit of Juneteenth exemplifies all of this. In the end, it’s not just about a holiday celebrating the liberation of Black Americans. It’s about acknowledging that the United States, like so many other nations, did not get it right the first, second, or third time, that true freedom is an ideal we are still striving for. It’s about acknowledging that white institutions on all levels are built on the backs of Black folks and other people of color. It’s about acknowledging all the work that has been done and how much we have left to do.

You don't have to wait for Juneteenth to take action or to celebrate Black liberation, joy, and achievements. You don’t have to wait for another George Floyd or Breonna Taylor to remember that Black Lives Matter, either. Keep that spirit alive in each step, stomp, and jeté.

And before you go, clap…and let the ancestors know that you’re ready.

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