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Juneteenth: A Day of Liberation

by Kayla Spikes, Centerstone Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Manager

Black can be characterized as the absence of light. In symbolism black may represent things like evil, death, grief, mourning, mystery, bleakness, heaviness, depression, rebellion and fear. As a Black person in America, many of these words resonate with me for a variety of reasons. While some people may disagree, I believe Black people in America are still dealing with the trauma and impacts of slavery, despite it formally taking place many generations ago. It is for this reason that I am especially grateful to my ancestors for Juneteenth, as it provides me a way to reflect on my past, be grounded in my present and look forward to my future.

Presently, our nation acknowledges the Fourth of July as Independence Day. Historically, we’ve been taught this day is to celebrate America’s freedom. We were failed in not being told the full truth – that this freedom was not all-inclusive.

More than two years after Emancipation Proclamation’s effective date of January 1, 1863, the remaining enslaved Black Americans were officially freed on June 19, 1865. It was this day, in which all Black people in the United States were legally freed from slavery, that later became known as “Juneteenth.” Juneteenth, short for June nineteenth, is considered the longest running African American holiday to date.

Juneteenth is a reminder that Black history is American history, despite the erasure of our history and culture in our country’s education system. It marks a date of major significance in American history and represents the ways in which freedom for Black people have been delayed. Juneteenth serves as a reminder that nobody is free until everybody is free.

So, what is freedom? Some would argue that Black people experience the same freedom as their counterparts. Personally, I disagree. Freedom looks like not having to navigate a difficult, developmentally appropriate conversation with your children about police interactions before they’ve learned to tie their shoes or ride a bike. Freedom feels like not having to worry about if your hair, tone or dialect will be seen as “unprofessional,” and impact your ability to secure a job or promotion. Freedom is the ability to grocery shop in peace or to wear a hoodie without being unfairly judged. Freedom is not having the world argue if your murder was justified, all while condemning the reaction to your murder. Freedom is the ability to simply be, all while being looked at with the same level of humanity as others. Instead, Black people are unfairly and disproportionately criticized, assumed to be less than or a threat, and even killed simply for being Black.

Juneteenth is not a marketing opportunity, and it is not meant to become a Hallmark holiday. Juneteenth is a day of liberation that deserves to be observed, learned and celebrated in the same way that Independence Day has for so many years. Given the recent social climate and historical context of our nation, Juneteenth continues to hold an especially important place in my heart, and the hearts of many Black Americans.

Juneteenth became a federal holiday last year, making it the 12th federal holiday, and the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983. Prior to it becoming a federal holiday, Juneteenth became a Centerstone recognized holiday, as a result of collective efforts of advocacy and commitment to move toward becoming a more diverse, equitable and inclusive organization.

So what exactly does Juneteenth mean to me? It provides me with a feeling of connectedness and a sense of belonging that I am not always afforded in many spaces due to the intersections of my identity – being Black and being a woman. It fills me with great pride as I am reminded of what it means to be Black. One of my favorite things about our culture is our response to adversity, our resiliency and our ability to continue to find joy despite the pain.

As you go on to celebrate graduations, anniversaries, birthdays and all the small victories in between, I urge you to celebrate our nation’s differences and the beautiful cultures you are given the opportunity to see and experience up close. Although black can be characterized as the absence of light, I would argue that the world would be far less colorful without it…without us. Happy Juneteenth!

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