Why Juneteenth Matters in 2020

Dear campus community,

Today the campus observes the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth or National Freedom Day. It refers to the date when enslaved Black men, women and children in the state of Texas collectively marked their emancipation at the end of the Civil War. Since then, Juneteenth not only commemorates the ending of chattel slavery by Black communities, but also bears witness to the millions of Black people who were enslaved and exploited for well over 400 years. (For more information, visit the National Museum of African American History & Culture: https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/celebrating-juneteenth.)

Juneteenth is different from the celebration of national independence in the United States. The former commemorates freedom from legal slavery. The latter celebrates political independence from the British Empire. The U.S. Congress mandated July 4th – the date of the Declaration of Independence – as a federal holiday, but has failed to declare Juneteenth one. Instead, many states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation to observe Juneteenth or to make it a holiday.

This tension between Juneteenth and Independence Day has defined the history of the United States. The political independence of the former North American colonies did not end the institution of slavery but, rather, institutionalized it. Frederick Douglass captured this tension in his 1852 speech entitled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”:

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with 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 these United States, at this very honor.

The end of slavery did not mean the end of anti-Blackness. For the next hundred years, Black Americans were subjected to state sanctioned and federally tolerated injustice; known as the era of Jim Crow. Their citizenship status in the south or north or west did not protect them from violations of their voting rights and civil rights. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were for other people. In this context, Juneteenth served as a powerful space for Black communities to draw strength to fight for racial justice in spite and because of racist violence and intimation as well as indifference to the structure and practices of white supremacy.

The current reckoning about anti-Black racism in the United States highlights the imperative for racial justice. To be sure, the gains of the civil rights movement in the 1960s are considerable. Still, continued unequal educational opportunity, uneven access to health care, and hurdles to participate in the economy means that Juneteenth in the 21st century remains as relevant as ever. In observing Juneteenth today, let us commit to fighting for racial justice together as a campus community. As Anteaters let us #ActForInclusion:

Read, View, Listen and Learn

A message from UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman in support of the African American community: https://chancellor.uci.edu/engagement/campus-communications/2020/200531-aa-community-support.php

A Message on anti-Black racism from UCI Vice Chancellor Douglas Haynes: https://inclusion.uci.edu/2020/05/29/message-on-anti-black-racism/
The Fire Next Time panel discussion about the Struggle to live in the United States:
https://inclusion.uci.edu/2020/06/04/the-fire-next-time/

Charlottesville: A Defining Moment in America: A Conversation with Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Jr and Chancellor’s Professor Michele Goodwin and Dr. Rabbi Hillel Cohn
https://inclusion.uci.edu/2019/08/12/charlottesville-a-defining-moment-in-america-a-conversation-with-reverend-jesse-jackson-sr/

Racial Bias in America: How Did We Get Here and Why Are We Stuck?
https://inclusion.uci.edu/2019/08/09/racial-bias-in-america-2/

Educate and Advocate

Learn more about the Inclusive Excellence Certificate Program https://inclusion.uci.edu/inclusive-excellence-certificate-program/ and contact us at inclusion@uci.edu to express interest.

#ActForInclusion

Douglas M. Haynes, Ph.D. (Preferred Pronouns he, him, his)
Chief Diversity Officer
Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
Professor of History