In the midst of tumultuous negotiations with the Confederate States of America, President Abraham Lincoln made a bold decision. On January 1st, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which was not at all the miraculous dissolution of slavery in America that history would have us believe. It proclaimed that all slaves in the Confederate states were “forever free” because these states refused to rejoin the Union and were in “rebellion” against the United States of America.
Ironically, the Union states were allowed to maintain their slaves because President Lincoln did not want to risk friction among them. Subsequently, freedmen fled to the North to join the Union Army, and slavery became the pivotal focus of the Civil War. The initial conflict began over various other reasons regarding states’ individual rights- such as taxation, the South demanding control over their own political and socio-economic infrastructure, as well as states’ resources.
With slavery perceived as the central issue, the Emancipation Proclamation has been lauded as a giant step for man-kind, when in fact; it was a strategic political move at best. At the time, William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, was quoted as sarcastically stating, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”
Even though the Proclamation was made in 1863, it was not until June 19th, 1865, that word of freedom reached the majority of southern states. General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to force slave-owners to comply with the new law- only to find that the slaves had no idea they were free.
Word spread like wild-fire, and the slaves, whether intimidated or elated by the thought of freedom, rejoiced, and the Juneteenth Celebration was born.
So why are we still not free?
Black Africans were physically and psychologically maimed by the institution of Slavery, and the same holds true today. We continue to be marginalized by institutionalized racism, and adversely, are enslaved by shackles of our own making. I am not speaking of the very real dis-proportionate percentage of African-American males in prison, or the alarming statistics that show African-Americans, specifically women, are paid a lesser salary for the same job as our white counterparts. These truths are unequivocal. I am speaking of the Willie Lynch mentality that forces us to direct our anger and frustration at our so-called “oppressors”, as well as destroying -rather than uplifting- our communities.
The airwaves are flooded with modern day minstrel shows that we decided to define as music and cloak and defend as self-expression. Yet, we become enraged at the perceived lack of respect shown to our culture by mainstream society. We sing hymns in protest at the slightest show of violence towards African-Americans in this country perpetuated by other ethnic groups. Yet, when it is one of our own, we allow the furor to quietly calm itself, as we attempt to heal our community away from the glare of those who might stereotype us. The suicide rate for African-Americans suffering from mental illnesses has increased 233% since 1980, yet we stigmatize each other for seeking the help that we need, so our brothers and sisters suffer in silence, choosing to minimize or mis-categorize the often life debilitating issues they face.
Are these not forms of slavery?
Yes, we have to work that much harder; we have to be that much smarter. Yes, we have to face unfair disadvantages in this country, but should we allow that to also hinder our evolution? With the physical chains broken, why must we now enslave our chances of prosperity and longevity with a stubborn resistance to honest accountability?
It is heartbreaking to see those descended from the Kings and Queens of Africa- and the architects of the Pyramids of Giza- reduced to dwelling in the projects, settling for mediocrity. People of African descent comprise the majority of the global population, yet vast numbers of us still have the mind-set of a minority. While we can march, riot, and boycott our way to superficial equality, only once we realize that we have never been “less than”, will we as a people equal more than the sum of our parts.
As Simone de Beauvoir said, “It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting”.
We must brave the deep waters of self-actualization and emerge enlightened so that we are able to powerfully embrace the knowledge that we have always been-and will continue to be- the captains of our own course, in complete control of our independence and freedom.
This Juneteenth we must pledge to respect and recognize the nuances of our past, and incorporate these realizations into our collective understanding as we move forward. We must not only rejoice in the acknowledgment of our physical freedom on that glorious day in 1865, but repudiate the slavery of the mind and spirit that we have continually reinforced upon ourselves. Only then will we have a true reason to celebrate.