By Coshandra Dillard
“It’s like a big family reunion,” a friend said while at a Juneteenth event a couple of weeks ago. She and I both reveled at the blackness on display: all the natural hair, the fellas walking with their pit bulls, the gospel music, the soul music, the rap music, the new outfits, the smoked food and the camaraderie. We felt free— free to be our true selves.
Black Americans are always chastised and denigrated because of our fractured families and assumed lack of unity without acknowledging the histories, trauma, and nuances that got us to that point. But I’ll argue that we are in fact one big family. Although we’re not always a nuclear family, black people have always found ways to sustain familial relationships through aunts and uncles, grandparents, godparents, “play cousins,” and other extended members. In other words, we’ve long held the belief that “it takes a village.”
Juneteenth celebrations are a manifestation of that village: people coming together peacefully, acknowledging each other as kinfolk, having real joy and not worrying about all the -isms and strife some of us endure daily. It’s why Juneteenth—the holiday that commemorates black Texans learning of their freedom— is special. Many of us acknowledge it as the Independence Day for our people. The fact that folks withheld that we were freed from slavery more than two years after it was official is a reminder that America has always been a dangerous place for us. And that’s why many, myself included, refrain from Fourth of July festivities.
I grew up celebrating the holiday, but not because of the significance of the day. We never spoke of independence, freedom or patriotism and I don’t know any other black family that did. It was just an opportunity to enjoy fireworks and barbecue.
It’s only been 152 years since black people in Texas learned of our freedom, while others will be celebrating 241 years of independence from England. So what were we doing 241 years ago? Right.
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass acknowledged what he called “inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony” during a blistering speech on July 5, 1852 at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York:
“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.” — Frederick Douglass
Douglass’ words resonate with us today. While we are now free, black people continue to fight against some of the same transgressions more than a century later: state-sanctioned violence and inequities in employment, housing, education and health care. We scramble to keep up with hashtags or try to tuck away images of black and brown people who are killed by police without justice or recourse. There is also a silencing of those who dare to speak out against injustices. See: Colin Kaepernick and Kamala Harris.
This country’s hasty race to regress to a time when black people had no rights is nothing to celebrate.
Nonetheless, I don’t consider myself less of an American because I don’t celebrate this national holiday. For those who do not care to participate in patriotic festivities, instead, find ways to pay homage to our ancestors—who truly fought for freedom. Or you can take up one of the following activities:
1. Read a word from Frederick Douglass. He was invited to speak at an event about the meaning of the holiday, but he was not about to tip-toe around the hypocrisy. Read the full text of his speech here.
2. Dive into some real history. There are histories to explore besides slavery. For example, the triumphs of people of the African diaspora, such as Haiti’s Toussaint Louverture.
3. Research your family history. I know. This is a hard one. I myself gave up (for now) when I realized how difficult and labor-intensive it would be to track down my ancestors. But it can be exciting and worthwhile. If nothing else, talk to the elders who may have an oral story or a tidbit you can use in your exploration.
4. Netflix and chill. You can’t go wrong with a very woke documentary, a movie or TV series, or even the low-budget sub-par black films that always seem to feature Clifton Powell. He has 215 acting credits!
5. Catch up on political happenings. Many woke folks don’t care much about American politics, but I think you have to know what’s going on to stay woke. Check in with the day’s news, or take an hour or so to dig into a long form article. Vox does a good job of helping people understand the implications of current policy, while WTF Just Happened Today is a great crash course and/or refresher if you have lost track of what’s going on.
6. Check out what’s hot in “the culture” right now. Because we can walk and chew gum at the same time, right? Who says you have to think and talk like Malcolm X 24/7? You can get your life by following “the culture” i.e., the hottest music, what #BlackTwitter is up to, and read up on the influencers and creatives who exemplify excellence.
7. Check on your loved ones/Have fun. Take some time to make sure your loved ones are OK, especially the elders. Are they comfortable? Have enough food to eat? Reconnect with those who molded who you are. And I’m sure somebody’s barbecuing or having a get-together.
8. Self-Care. By self-care I mean feel free to do absolutely nothing. Take some time to relax and de-stress, whether that means just praying, meditating or being a couch potato. But if you must do something, treat yourself to a nice meal, a pedicure, a massage, a detox bath, some herbal tea, or a new outfit. And do it without feeling guilty about it.
9. Self-reflection. This is also self-care. Sit still long enough to reflect on lessons learned, mistakes made, and how to achieve your goals. It’s also a time to practice gratitude. Being grateful even when there is enough in this world to be sad or angry about is critical for your physical and mental well-being.
10. Support a cause. Find a cause that is important to you and either spread awareness, volunteer or donate to an organization.