Last Friday, the 19th June 2020, marked the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, otherwise known as Liberation Day, Freedom day or Emancipation Day. On the 19th June 1865, enslaved African-Americans in Galveston, Texas, were told they were free from emancipation and that the civil war had ended. Now, 155 years later, people in cities and towns across the U.S. continue to mark the occasion with celebrations, as the date has been declared a state holiday. After the killings of several black people across the US, Juneteenth this year has been celebrated more widely than usual, despite the coronavirus lockdown. However, what it means to be free has changed throughout history. Is there a danger that Juneteenth can lull people into the belief they are freer than they really are?
Unfortunately, what it means to be free in 2020 is wholly different from what it meant in 1865. Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom in its historical sense, which means free from slavery. The meaning of ‘free’ now, is defined as ‘the ability to act as one wishes; not under the control of another’. According to this definition, many African Americans across the US today are unable to celebrate being free individuals. Institutional racism in the US (and UK) means that black people are not free from discrimination, nor do they have the same rights to freedom that most members of the white community have the privilege of.
The meaning of the word ‘free’ has different variations, one of which is: ‘not physically obstructed’. In the case of George Floyd, institutional racism and police brutality meant that he wasn’t granted this freedom. In the case of Breonna Taylor, who was killed at home and Ahmaud Arbury, who was killed while jogging, neither were free in today’s sense, to act as they wish. Like George, Breonna, Ahmaud and all those killed before them, their rights to ‘freedom’ (‘the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants’) were brutally crushed by an institutionally racist society.
Despite this, Juneteenth celebrations are needed. Although rights to freedom and equality are still being fought for, the Juneteenth celebrations are a unifying experience and shed hope for the future. The celebrations provide a day of joy and relief for those who have endured the fight for justice for so long. Juneteenth not only celebrates a political victory, but also provides social healing among communities who are tired of fighting for freedom. It is times like the Juneteenth celebrations which remind society of how far it has come, and how much further it needs to go to achieve justice and equal rights to freedom.