Skip to main content

Debra Thompson is an Associate Professor of Political Science at McGill University.

I was in my late twenties by the time I discovered that I shared a birthday with freedom.

June 19, or Juneteenth, was the day that the last enslaved Black people were finally freed in Galveston, Tex., more than two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s not a holiday that is widely celebrated outside African-American communities, and so perhaps I can be excused for thinking, as all people secretly do, that my birthday was special.

What is Juneteenth?

Birthdays and holidays both mark the passage of time, albeit in different ways. National holidays are often about a commemoration of the past – they ritualize the recognition of some momentous occasion in our history. Birthdays do the same, in a more intimate way. Rather than just marking our beginnings, they are also a temporal gauge of the unrealized potential of the year ahead. We celebrate all that the next year might bring, all the possibilities of what we might become.

Juneteenth is indeed a memorialization of an important moment in American history. The nation was figuratively and literally built by slavery, and so June 19, 1865, was truly the end of an era. But Juneteenth is also a holiday of futurology. At its core, it is a celebration not of the finality or achievement of emancipation, but rather the extent to which freedom remains incomplete. On Juneteenth, we remember that abolition on paper was insufficient to guarantee the basic human dignity of those still enslaved in what were once the far corners of the country. Nor was slavery as a system of economic exploitation, social subjugation and political repression ended in practice. The failed promise of Reconstruction brought about interlocking structures of domination, such as convict leasing, share cropping, Jim Crow segregation, voting disenfranchisement in the Solid South and de facto discrimination, which embedded Black inequality into every facet of American life.

While birthdays have become less meaningful as I’ve aged, Juneteenth has become even more resonant. Many people discovered Juneteenth only recently, likely because of President Trump’s original plan to hold his first rally in months on June 19 in Tulsa, Okla. Given that Mr. Trump has more than a nodding acquaintance with white supremacy, these choices were immediately and widely condemned as co-opting both a time and place that hold reverence in African-American communities. Juneteenth is the day we celebrate our freedom from generational bondage; Tulsa is haunted by the ghosts of one of the worst racially motivated massacres in American history, in which white mobs murdered more than 300 African-Americans and burnt the thriving community known as “Black Wall Street” to the ground, leaving approximately 9,000 Black residents homeless.

Juneteenth also resonates this year because of the particular moment we’re in. The mass uprisings across the globe, united by the rallying cry of Black Lives Matter, have once again illustrated the central disconnect laid bare by the original Juneteenth. That is, citizenship rights that are formally guaranteed by law are meaningless without the parallel enactment, protection and veneration of freedom in practice. The deadly global pandemic and worldwide economic chaos of the past few months have highlighted the gaping holes in the social safety net in many democratic societies. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the response to COVID-19 in the United States has been a policy failure of epic proportions. And even as the state fails in its core responsibilities, the police – its most conspicuous face to vulnerable populations – still somehow manage to use a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence to disproportionately target and kill Black people. And so, more than 150 years after that last enactment of freedom for those who had been enslaved, Juneteenth 2020 demonstrates that Black freedom dreams remain an unfinished project.

But Juneteenth has also captured our imaginations this year more than others because unfinished projects encapsulate the sheer, raw potential of the unknown. This Juneteenth we can celebrate these first, tentative steps toward a society that looks different for us all. The spirit of Juneteenth is to be neither dissuaded nor distracted by the formal equality granted in law, because Black freedom dreams have always sought a kind of emancipation, self-determination and national belonging that exceed the narrow conceptual confines of democratic citizenship. Juneteenth revels in our capacity to change and celebrates not the first steps to freedom, but the enduring last. Juneteenth reminds us that none of us are free until we are all free.

So, happy birthday to me and happy Juneteenth to substantive, unrealized freedom. We are both a work in progress.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe