Resilience. Joy. Community. Liberation. There are an infinite number of concepts wrapped up in the day known as Juneteenth, the official commemoration of the emancipation of enslaved Black people in the United States. However, underscoring all of those is one fundamental idea that gives rise to all the others: humanity.
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring all enslaved people free. But it was more than two years later, on June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger arrived in Texas to inform enslaved Black people there that they were in fact “free.” Texas was the last state in the Confederacy to receive word that the Civil War had ended, and slavery had been abolished. Of course, what followed that day was an ongoing series of efforts to continue denying Black Americans their freedom and ultimately their humanity.
Challenges to Black humanity
From enslavers in Texas withholding the emancipation news from enslaved people in order to exploit them for one more harvest season to a tidal wave of Jim Crow laws enveloping the nation in an uninterrupted continuation of white supremacy that has yet to be extinguished, challenges to Black freedom and humanity have been relentless and tightly bound to American history.
Juneteenth is the undeterred and celebratory response to that systemic oppression. And yet it was only June 17, 2021 when President Biden signed a bill declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday. Juneteenth is a declaration of Black humanity and identity. An identity that directly informs mental health and well-being.
Dr. Cirecie West-Olatunji, a professor at Xavier University and a member of the American Counseling Association, points out that America’s habit of celebrating holidays like July 4 and perpetuating major historical gaps and inaccuracies as they relate to the Black American experience affects personal development. What does "Independence Day” mean to someone whose independence and humanity wasn’t acknowledged for more than another century and wasn’t honored for another century after that?
Ways to support Black liberation on Juneteenth
Juneteenth is central to Black American mental health and well-being because it’s defined by Black humanity and liberation. It’s a part of Black identity formation. So, for those of us who want to honor the day and help safeguard and celebrate that humanity, what should we do?
Here are three simple guidelines for supporting Black mental health in honor of Juneteenth:
- Listen to Black Voices. Juneteenth is about centering and celebrating Black liberation and the Black American experience. Seek out rallies, articles, stories, artwork, poetry readings, music and social media accounts and Black-owned businesses that offer rich, authentic Black perspectives to learn from.
- Respect Black Spaces. Juneteenth isn’t just a Black holiday. It’s an American holiday. It’s a date that is part of our history and that every American should learn about and honor. However, for those of us who are not Black—especially white people—it's important to remember that supporting Black mental health means not dominating or appropriating Black voices and spaces. Work to bolster, not burden. Aim to amplify, not invade.
- Learn Your History. Honoring Juneteenth and respecting Black identity means working to fill the significant gaps in our knowledge of American history. Look for documentaries, books, workshops, professional development seminars and other educational opportunities that will challenge your understanding and beliefs as they relate to race in America.
And finally, stop to think about the meaning behind the different holidays we do or don’t acknowledge and why, and how those inclusions and omissions affect the mental health and identity development of those who are celebrated or omitted as a result. Frederick Douglass’ “Fourth of July” speech is a great place to start.