Professor Melanye T. Price on the Ongoing Significance of Juneteenth

Over the last few weeks, Black Lives Matter has been working within its ecosystem on how it wants to celebrate Juneteenth.

We have collaborated on planning a day of joy, dance, and community. In the midst of this, we can’t help but center the sacredness of Juneteenth.

Today and everyday, we control our own narrative. Not the government, not our workplaces, not corporations.

Read a letter written by Professor Melanye T. Price, member of Scholars 4 Black Lives, a partner of Black Lives Matter.

Coming of age in Texas, Juneteenth was a big deal. In the weeks leading up to the 19th of June there were Miss Juneteenth pageants, outdoor concerts, parades, and, always, barbecue. In large and small gatherings, Black folks commemorate the day in 1865 when, more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston Island with federal troops to enforce the emancipation of enslaved people in the region. While the aftermath of the Civil War surely rendered already slow communications near impossible, it is also likely that slaveholders exploited these same conditions to keep Black people enslaved as long as possible.

Trying to figure out which scenario was more likely and how that impacted the celebrations has always been a popular debate at Juneteenth parades and barbecues alike. While some believe that freedom in any form is worth celebrating, others continue to question whether the lateness of freedom somehow diminishes its significance. Is freedom delayed a freedom of any less importance? For many Black Texans, and those celebrating Dia de los Negros in the village of Nacimiento in Mexico, Juneteenth marks not only the freedom our Ancestors achieved, but the freedom we’re still fighting for.

Creative Interpretation of the Official Juneteeth Flag Graphic
Creative interpretation of the official Juneteeth flag, which was originally created by activist and organizer Ben Haith, founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation (NJCF).

The ongoing significance Juneteenth remains important because we continue to grapple with the tension between celebrating freedom and justice and the continued struggle to permanently secure both. Nearly eight years into the Black Lives Matter movement, many are abandoning calls for liberal reform in favor of an overarching abolitionist approach. In a moment of such transformation, some find it rightfully difficult to celebrate when our struggle remains so urgent. I am reminded of responses to the conviction of former Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. “Big Floyd” was a Texan who, growing up in Houston’s Third Ward, surely celebrated Juneteenth. For many, the level of resources put into the Chauvin trial, the willingness of law enforcement’s top brass to testify against him, and the conviction itself represented a monumental triumph. The people who marched in the streets, not just last summer, but in the many years and decades before, made accountability possible by demanding justice. And, although true justice is George still being here, the legal victory needed to be celebrated, if only to applaud organizers and protestors’ accomplishments.

Commemorative Juneteenth Statue Photo
Commemorative Juneteenth statue on the grounds of Ashton Villas in Galveston, TX depicts the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19, 1865.

We also know that accountability for the murder of George Floyd, does not bring the kind of transformative justice necessary to save Black lives from state-sanctioned violence. Before the Chauvin trial was underway, the family Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was reeling from the trauma levied on his children who watched their father be shot in the back seven times by police and left paralyzed. In Los Angeles, Dijon Kizzee was murdered by sheriffs for bike-riding while Black. I think of Daunte Wright, who, in the midst of the Chauvin trial, was stopped just miles away from where Brother George was killed and shot to death by Brooklyn Center, Minneapolis police officer Kim Potter…allegedly for expired tags. And, just minutes after the verdict was announced by news stations, we learned 16-year old Ma’Khia Bryant was killed by a police officer in Columbus, Ohio. Again, our relief was short-lived. This has been the challenge of generations, just as our Ancestors who resisted enslavement and imagined emancipation, but did not experience legal freedom until official news arrived on June 19, 1865. Their legacy and gift to us is that they woke up June 20th–and every morning since–fighting to maintain our freedom and expand its meaning. Our challenge today is to find and hold space for both celebration and struggle. We honor our Ancestors by acknowledging that which is good in our lives and stopping to revel in it. In addition, we inherit the obligation to continue their work to build a better, freer future for the generations that follow. Because, in many ways, the freedom we’ve been given is the freedom we must pass on.

So, let us say together, “Happy Juneteenth!” Let us be happy for the day our Ancestors were no longer legally held in the bondage of chattel slavery. Let us be happy we have the power to walk in their free footsteps, to rise each day to make the world anew. Let us be happy that, because we are free, we can help free somebody else.

Melanye T. Price is an Endowed Professor of Political Science at Prairie View A&M University and principal investigator for their African American Studies Initiative, which is funded by the Mellon Foundation. Dr. Price was recently named inaugural director of The Ruth J. Simmons Center for Race and Justice. Price is the author of two books: The Race Whisperer: Barack Obama and the Political Uses of Race (NYU, 2016) and Dreaming Blackness: Black Nationalism and African American Public Opinion (NYU, 2009).

Professor Price’s letter can also be read on the Scholars for Black Lives website.