By Andrew Williams
“No adult alive today will live to see a time when the time of enslavement was equal to the time of freedom.” -Isabella Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Sons
Wilkerson’s historical insight into the longevity of slavery in the United States forced me to grapple in new ways with just how recently my African American ancestors gained their emancipation.
157 years is the exact count, or just five generations.
My 5th-great uncles, Isom and George Ampey, were members of the historic first all-Black 54th Regiment in the Union Army featured in the movie Glory. They were among the nearly 200,000 Black men who enlisted in the fight for their own liberation. Tens of thousands of other African American men, women, and children arrived as refugees in Union Army camps to secure their freedom after harrowing journeys through slave territory and warzones. On Juneteenth I will be remembering and honoring them as well as the millions whose names have been lost in the historical record and our family genealogies.
Each year on June 19, African American communities gather to celebrate Juneteenth, commemorating the end of racialized slavery across the United States. Our newest national holiday is related to the story of enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Texas learning that they had been emancipated, some two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
Although Juneteenth creates an opportunity for reflection on the suffering of enslaved Blacks, more importantly — like the story of my 5th-great uncles — the holiday should remind us of the strength, courage, resilience, and cultural vibrancy of African Americans. Of Black love.
Juneteenth is meaningful for me, not just because it marks the end of slavery, but because it serves as a ritualized, political holiday that tells — and retells — the story of Black people’s ongoing struggle for freedom in a nation that suffers from selective amnesia. Wendell Berry has written,
“ [W]hen a community loses it memory, its members no longer know one another. How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories? If they don’t know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, moreover they fear one another. And this is our predicament now.”
I believe remembrance like that prompted by Juneteenth is fundamental to racial healing and provides our country a pathway to truth, reconciliation and justice. This cultural, political, and spiritual work will require of us a willingness to acknowledge any traumatic wounds we carry, the trauma others experience, and how the realities of inter-generational trauma and anti-Blackness plays out in society.
“History is not the past,” wrote Baldwin, “It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” Although Juneteenth celebrates a specific historical event, it is also important to understand the day as an aspirational holiday — because while I and other Black people are celebrating the Emancipation, there is an acute awareness that freedom for us continues to be elusive. The echo of slavery is apparent in the persistent patterns of anti-Blackness and inequities in employment, housing, education, criminal justice, environmental justice and health care. And, I believe there is a thread of inter-generational trauma that connects slavery to the staggering disparities in opioid overdose deaths among African American people.
I believe it is important to emphasize that Juneteenth is a national holiday, not just an African American holiday. And my hope is that diverse cultural communities will pause on the Juneteenth holiday to consider the debts owed to Black people as a result of slavery and generations of racial violence, social exclusion, political disenfranchisement and economic exploitation.
If more in our American society can manifest the bold hope, solidarity, and political imagination of those enslaved African Americans, there is a possibility that Juneteenth will be more than just a symbolic, though important, cultural victory. This sort of authentic and deep remembrance, paired with anti-racist action, can make Juneteenth a cornerstone for healing and justice.
“Justice and humanity are often overpowered. But they are persistent and eternal forces — and fearsome to contend with.” -Frederick Douglass
As I’ve worked over the years to make meaning of our nation’s history of slavery, these are some of the resources I’ve engaged and would recommend. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but just a sample from my current jukebox, including oldies but goodies:
Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”
CLR James, Black Jacobins
Guy Endore, Babouk
William Craft & Ellen Craft, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom
Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture
Isabel Allende, An Island Beneath the Sea
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
Sankofa, a film by Haile Gerima
Daughters of the Dust a film by Julie Dash
12 Years a Slave, a film by Steve McQueen
Andrew Williams is the national director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.