Commemorating Juneteenth

Today we celebrate Juneteenth- a jubilant day commemorating the emancipation of African-Americans from slavery. On June 19, 1865, slaves in Texas finally learned of their liberation from slavery two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. There are many possible reasons why it took over two years for enslaved African-Americans to receive news of their freedom, such as leaders intentionally withholding the information or others physically delaying or assaulting the messenger. No matter what the intention, African-Americans were still held in bondage in the deep south despite the announcement of their abolition years prior. Juneteenth recognizes the end of slavery, but many slaves were still kept as prisoners by their masters even when the definition of slavery transformed. The 13th amendment was added to the Constitution in December of 1865, reading, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” With the addition of this amendment, slavery was officially abolished, however, America would never provide its African-American citizens with full freedom and liberty. After the emancipation and constitutional addition, African-Americans were still treated as livestock- lynchings continued to occur, racism through Jim Crow laws and legal segregation took wave, the disproportionate imprisonment of black and brown bodies as well as police brutality and economic disparities directed toward African-Americans took slavery’s place. Incidentally, the 13th amendment allows the practice of modern slavery through the prison system. Famed director Ava DuVernay provides insight into slavery in the 21st century in her incredible documentary, 13th.

After African-Americans were freed from their chains of slavery, white citizens found other ways of imposing their hate in physical and social ways. Lynchings; state-sanctioned violence; and hate crimes combined with segregation; economic, educational, and societal oppression; and mass incarceration have kept African-Americans in bondage nearly two centuries after they were emancipated. According to the Pew Research Center, Black citizens make up 12% of the US population, but account for 33% of the country’s prison population. In comparison, white people make up 64% of America, but represent only 30% of its prison population. An even more startling fact is that while black men represent 6.5% of the US population, they account for 40.2% of the prison population. It’s anticipated that 1 in 3 black males will go to prison in his lifetime, while 1 in 14 white males will. In essence, the criminal justice system and American society are shaped by the creation of slavery. Juneteenth is an important and beautiful holiday about which all Americans should learn. However, it’s important to remember that slavery still transpires through the prison system as African-American men and women are disproportionately jailed and forced into free labor. They are also systematically oppressed through police brutality, economic and educational oppression, and forms of segregation in 2018. On Juneteenth, may we remember that true freedom does not exist until we are all free.