A Reflection of Juneteenth 2020 Will You Be Engaged in a Moment or a Movement?

By Jamie R. Riley

To my knowledge today, June 19, 2020, will be the first time in 155 years since the formal end of slavery, that Juneteenth, or “Freedom Day,” will be widely and publicly acknowledged by some, and celebrated by others. On June 19, 1865, enslaved African ancestors in Galveston, Texas formally learned of the signing of the emancipation proclamation that legally ended slavery. This year, corporations, politicians, non-profits, educational institutions, and local municipalities have all decided that, compared to the prior 154 years of little if any recognition, Juneteenth this year’s will be different. On this Juneteenth 2020, individuals from diverse racial groups will actively engage in remembering the full emancipation of the ancestors of Black Americans. While I am hopeful that many of us will engage in activities throughout the day to acknowledge and commemorate this day, I also encourage you use this time to reflect and think more deeply about the true opportunity we have at this moment of deep division in our country to come together to inspire and work for true systemic change.

As I reflect, I will admit that I am mixed with emotions and thoughts. On one hand it seems that we as a country have arrived at this moment in history where Black people can bear witness to a society that, at minimum, has decided to outwardly acknowledge that Black Lives Matter beyond pop culture, athletics, MLK, and the month of February. However, at the same time I must admit that I am perplexed. In the midst of grand public gestures on social media, increased philanthropic efforts toward historically Black institutions and organizations, and wordy philosophical statements and promises, I would like to remind everyone that this is a small millisecond in a larger racial justice movement.  We, Black people, have been screaming and demanding recognition, equitable social engagement, participation, and acknowledgment for 401 years. However, this moment in 2020 has compelled so many of us to raise our voices in protest and say, Now is the time. Now is when the collective we of the United States of America will finally begin the work of unpacking racism and white supremacy. Now after a century of social and economic disenfranchisement, police brutality, educational inequality, health care disparities, gentrification, cultural misappropriation, and violence and murder, we [the United States of America] are now ready to address the issue of racism.

By no means do I share the stark realities of the experience of Blacks in American to sour this moment in history. However, I think we all have to pause and ask ourselves, “Why?” Why is our country now ready to address American’s original sin? Is it because the historic trauma and pain of Black people has been plastered across news stations for the last 3 months? Is it because our lives are at risk daily from a health and economic pandemic and while also sleeping in our homes, while jogging in our neighborhoods, and while we wait in fast-food drive-thru lines?

Even amid my own internal reflection, like so many from generations of the past, I remain hopeful. I am hopeful that, in this moment, the desire of so many to spark change is genuine and not an effort to soothe white guilt, allowing white people to relieve themselves of their often-subconscious role in perpetuating and participating in racist systems and structures. Attending a protest, donating money, posting on social media, or even acknowledging Juneteenth, won’t erase or resolve racism or your role within perpetuating it. However, your long-standing commitment to unpacking your whiteness, sharing and/or relinquishing your power and privilege, and your unwavering commitment to centering Black people, will contribute to several future moments that will lead to a greater movement of full racial equity for Black people.

I encourage you to take this moment in history, this day, to identify your role in this movement and to ensure that future generations experience a more just and racially equitable society. This is our moment in this movement. Let’s be sure to use it with intentionality and courage by making a greater commitment to Racial Justice. Happy Juneteenth America. Welcome to this moment. Are you here to stay?