The Displays of Juneteenth
By Cheyney McKnight, Not Your Momma’s History
This article was commissioned by A.R.M., as a work-in-trade.
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Juneteenth for the past 155 years has been a celebration for a Americans especially black Americans to celebrate the end of slavery. It marks the day on June 19, 1865 that Major General Gordon Granger went to Galveston, Texas and delivered and enforced General Order Number 3, freeing the last remaining enslaved persons in the United States. This was two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed enslaved persons that resided in states that were in rebellion against the Union.
Each year black Americans take a day to joyfully celebrate another year of freedom for their people. They do so in spite of the daily trials of being black in America. They may fire up the grill or dig barbeque pits to cook choice pieces of meat, and lay out an abundance of potato salad, and green leafy vegetables. They then prepare their best family friendly playlist, put on their new Juneteenth shirt or outfit, and gather with friends and family on the dance floor.
There is a joy that permeates the atmosphere. It is displayed in the smiling faces, the laughter, the sharp dance moves, and the festive decorations. If you find yourself observing one of these celebrations, please remember that this display is a visible form of resistance. Do not make the common mistake of erasing their pain through their celebrations.
It is not a coincidence that the official colors of Juneteenth are Red, White and Blue. It is to symbolize that the formerly enslaved as well as their descendants are American. It is also not a coincidence that the recent resurgence of Juneteenth has seen decorations shift to the Pan-African colors of either Red, yellow, and green (inspired by the Ethiopian Flag) or the red, black, and green of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) flag. Ethiopia is celebrated throughout Africa and the diaspora for avoiding being taken under European control during the colonial period. They won a strategic military victory over Italy to maintain that freedom in 1896.
Black Americans use Juneteenth clothing selections to make political statements and make connections with their West African ancestry. A common shirt design this year has been the “Free-ish Since 1865” which refers to the numerous racist laws or “black codes” still in effect on local and state government, white supremacy, and racial terrorism that kept black Americans as second class citizens. As well, the 13th Amendment paved the way for many of the practices of the modern prison system, which allow the use of inmates as slave labor for profit. This shirt and ones like it acknowledge that even though black Americans celebrate an end to legal slavery, there is still a ways to go in order to celebrate a full victory.
I think we are seeing through the dress and decorations around Juneteenth, a reflection of a change that is occurring within black Americans. They, as a people, are slowly turning from the idea of proving their American patriotism to simply stating it through the history written plainly on their skin. “We are American! I don’t need to wear the American flag or splash my celebrations with red white and blue to assure white America that I love this country,” professed a participant at a Harlem Juneteenth celebration last year. “It is plain to see that I too belong here, as my ancestors paid for that right in blood.”
Black Americans use the color schemes and West African inspired dress to reintroduce themselves. “We are American, we are descended from West Africans, and without black Americans there would be no United States of America.” They assert their place in the United States, and reclaim connections to Africa that were snatched away through the enslavement process. This Juneteenth the world has a renewed focus on the treatment of black Americans by the government, police and fellow citizens. They look with hope to real reforms that will start to repair the damage done to them through chattel slavery and hundreds of years of institutional racism.
Cheyney McKnight went to Simmons University in Boston and majored in Political Science.
She is the Living History Coordinator at New-York Historical Society, where she develops living history programming and trains Historical Interpreters.
She owns and operates Not Your Momma’s History a consulting firm that aids historic sites in talking about race and slavery in 18th and 19th century America through staff trainings and exhibit consulting.
She also has a Instagram and YouTube channel that she uses to educate people about race and slavery in America.
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