COMMUNITY ROUNDTABLE: Meaning of Juneteenth and Plans for Commemoration
In this virtual roundtable, a group of CSSW affiliates discusses the meaning of Juneteenth in their own lives.
Juneteenth, a day that honors the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States, is not a national holiday. But maybe, as a result of the recent protests against racial injustice and police brutality, it will become one. Dean Melissa Begg and Assistant Dean of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Karma Lowe, in a joint statement about the historical significance of the day, called on the CSSW community to honor June 19, 2020, as a “day of reflection.” And University President Lee Bollinger has announced that, for the first time ever, Juneteenth would be observed as a University holiday for all students, faculty, and staff.
In recognition of the new-found significance of the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States, we asked several members of the School of Social Work’s community to share their personal interpretation of Juneteenth as well as their plans for observing it this year.
We hope their answers will help to spark a conversation. We encourage you to share your own thoughts and plans for the day in the comments.
HEIDI ALLEN, Associate Professor: Juneteenth celebrates the end of legal slavery in our country. It is a day for remembering that our nation’s wealth was derived from the stolen lives of human beings (on stolen land). I plan to commemorate the day by finishing the podcast “Seeing White” from Scene On Radio (highly recommended!). I will also celebrate the indomitable spirit, creativity, and genius of my Black colleagues.
ANA ANGELES, Program and Events Manager, Student Life: As a non-Black person of color, I think it’s important to reflect on the fact that June 19, 1865, was not the day that enslaved people were freed or the day that slavery ended. It marks the day when enslaved Texans found out they had been “free” for over two years. As someone committed to racial justice, I’m reflecting on systems that exist to erase Juneteenth and its historical importance.
In a conversation between Marc Lamont Hill and Charlene Carruthers about Black Liberation in celebration of Juneteenth, they shared that we are in a moment where we can dream as audaciously as possible and that we have to decriminalize our imagination. I am continuing to educate myself and my communities about alternatives to policing and prisons and continuing to believe that a better world is on its way.
I call on non-black people to take some time out of the day to learn about systems that target Black people and Black communities and the ways that institutions (political, economic, cultural, educational, and legal institutions—just to name a few) have upheld and normalized white supremacy and anti-blackness. I’m also calling on us to critically think about our roles and how we have been complicit in reinforcing white supremacist ideals, especially in an Ivy League social work institution.
JOHN BOHN, Communications Officer: Juneteenth reminds me of the cruelty and hypocrisy on which the U.S. was founded, the privileges I have as a white person in the U.S., and the ongoing fight against white supremacy. This year, amidst a pandemic and economic crisis, I find myself also drawing another lesson from Juneteenth, which marks the day the last slaves in the U.S. were freed. That this day is celebrated across the country even though many slaves were freed before then reminds me of a recurring theme in the Black freedom struggle, articulated by Martin Luther King Jr. when he said “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Seeing overwhelmed hospitals, nurses without proper PPE, millions of people unemployed and unable to pay rent, I believe that white people need to see their own freedom from tyranny and exploitation as bound up in Black liberation. As W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1935—a period with uncanny parallels to our own—the “color caste system… became the basis of a system of industry which ruined democracy and showed its perfect fruit in World War and Depression.”
There is a lot happening this Juneteenth in NYC given the ongoing uprising. My day will probably be a mix of rallies, marches and bike rides. At some point, I will also continue my reading of Race Rebels, by Robin D.G. Kelley.
DAWN GODDARD-ECKRICH, Associate Research Scientist, Social Intervention Group: I am embarrassed to say this, but I did not grow up in this country so I am not familiar with Juneteenth at all and have never celebrated it. In my country, Trinidad and Tabago, we celebrate Emancipation Day, which is a holiday. It is similar to Juneteenth and the tradition is to wear African dress and eat African food. I am going to use tomorrow to educate myself and my children on Juneteenth and celebrate African American freedom—hopefully soon to be equal in every way. My family and I plan to make this an annual tradition.
KARMA LOWE, Assistant Dean of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: As someone who grew up in Texas, Juneteenth has always been a reminder of the cruel history of slavery in this country. While it is a date of emancipation and celebration, I always think about the fact that those enslaved folx in Galveston were the last to be notified that they were now free men and women—years after they were entitled to that freedom. It is a holiday that brings a mix of emotions: joy, resiliency, disappointment, and gratitude. It’s a key day not just in Black history, but in American history.
I plan to use tomorrow as a day to connect with family, especially my dad (Millard “Tex” Lowe), who was born and raised in Texas, and very active in the civil rights movement. I’m hoping we can use it as a day of reflection and to talk about his experiences with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and registering Black people in Mississippi and Arkansas to vote in the early and mid-1960s. I’m curious to hear what, if any, parallels he may draw to the current wave of activism against anti-Black racism, and the various continuing protests across the country.
DESMOND PATTON, Associate Professor: Juneteenth means defining my narrative and working with others to building and enhance our community. I plan to use tomorrow “reclaiming my time.”
ELENI VLACHOS, Communications + Marketing Manager, Social Intervention Group: Why isn’t Juneteenth our country’s main independence day, since July 4th, 1776, did not include everyone? As we commemorate freedom from slavery, I’m struck by the work ahead. Some pivotal moments, where I was faced with my own privilege, stand out. First, from three of my former (Black) bosses:
- 21 years ago, Jerry taught me that camping outside of Seattle—a “liberal” bastion—was not safe for a Black man.
- Al, 19 years ago, taught me to notice our world: Who is represented in this photo? Who is not? What does that convey?
- MaryAnn, 10 years ago, taught me about health disparities impacting the Black community. She was also a social worker who grew up in South Carolina where the local TV stations would fuzz out the signal when Black performers appeared on their televisions so “we wouldn’t see ourselves elevated.” Later, she chaired the board of one of the largest performing arts centers.
Seven years ago, Black community leaders in my then-neighborhood taught me about the new Jim Crow, implicit bias, why neighborhood watch is terrible, and how, because of policing, they feared for their son walking down our streets or for their husbands checking in on someone’s home while the residents were on vacation.
Here in Philly, where I live now, in the shadow of Independence Hall, our mayor (finally) recognized Juneteenth as a holiday. Tomorrow, in addition to continuing to listen and learn from Black colleagues and individuals (and not burden them by asking them to teach me about our own racist systems), I will be doing something similar to Heidi Allen: tuning in to the Seeing White podcast series, particularly Episode 3: Made in America – “The innovations that built American slavery are inseparable from the construction of Whiteness as we know it today.” I also plan to continue protesting (wearing a mask, as all are doing), learning, and acting beyond 6/19. Long way to go. I’m also fortunate here at SIG to continue learning from our scientists who work with underserved populations and run a training program for underrepresented scholars (HISTP).
CHRISTOPHER WON, Program Coordinator, Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: Juneteenth is a reminder of what the United States is founded upon—Colonization and Slavery—and as a migrant, I must reckon with the existence of modern forms of slavery 150+ years later, in navigating my privilege and belonging on this land.
I will attend Friday’s vigil in Manhattan and learn more about the history of my own community and its relationship with the Black community, in order to root my work in authentic solidarity.