This essay was written by La’Shay Crayton, LMSW, MPH, doctoral student at Fordham GSS.
The rich, enveloping voice of Ms. Aretha Franklin rings with such beauty and grace as she greets my ears with the beautiful lyrics from the song “Young, Gifted, and Black”. It is one of my favorite songs. I imagine it echoing the sentiments of newly freed Black Americans on Emancipation Day in 1865, articulating how they must have felt as they cheered and celebrated freedom. The song continues to share the verses:
To be young, gifted, and black
Oh, what a lovely precious thing
Oh, when you’re, yes, yes, when you’re…
When you’re young, yeah, thank you, Jesus
Gifted and black
Open your heart is all I need
In this whole world, you know
There are millions of boys and girls
Who are young, gifted and black
With their souls intact, and that’s a fact
These lyrics continue to ring in my head at the most celebratory of times. Perhaps it is the mix of Ms. Aretha’s voice (though sung by many others first, including the bonafide Nina Simone and Donny Hathaway). Or perhaps it is the pride that she sang with as a Black American, a sentiment that she declared proudly throughout her accomplished life.
The average lifespan of a slave was 21 years of age (and it was even less for those forced into certain types of labor), half the life expectancy of free White people (Fogal, 1974). As slavery denied Black individuals of both adulthood and the opportunity to utilize their gifts, the concept of being young, gifted, and Black most likely was exhilarating to the Freedman, as Black Americans were often called, as freedom opened up their entire world to them. I imagine many young people set out to impact the world and see their dreams become a reality.
Juneteenth is a commemoration and celebration of the freed enslaved Black Americans post the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation mandated that all slaves in Confederate territory were freed. However, the Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately liberate all enslaved people in the United States. Though there were hundreds of slave rebellions throughout the United States, some of which were successful. As a result, enslaved communities overthrew plantation slaveholders and lived among Native colonies or made their own communities in the swamps; these communities and people were known as Maroons. In Galveston, Texas on June 19th, 1865, the last enslaved people gained freedom. Despite this, emancipation and Freedom Day were often celebrated in other states as the news of freedom trickled in, starting January 1, 1863.
These freedom parades were well-described as:
“January 1st 1863. This has been a great day among the negroes. Encouraged by the Yankees, and under the impression from Lincoln’s proclamation that ‘the hour of Jubilee has come,’ they have had a wonderful procession through the streets of Norfolk, with banners, flags, sashes and whatever things are used on such occasions. It is difficult to estimate the number in this grand turn out; but, it has been variously estimated from 3,000 to 15,000, including men, women, and children. . . .The United States flag was conspicuous among the various ensigns; and at various certain stages of the wandering, three cheers, each, were given to the U.S. flag, President Lincoln and Liberty. This whole procession advanced to the residence of Gen. Vielé, where this dignitary received them in state and addressed them in a flattering speech. (p. 1)”
As I review literature about Juneteenth, Its clear the excitement was penetrable. Juneteenth has been celebrated for over a century. Freedom Day has long been a standing commemoration to Black Americans. I loved to listen to the stories from my grandparents and older cousins, aunties and uncles as they reflected on the stories told to them and what it was like to hold Juneteenth, a time of reflection on the bravery of their ancestors and our unwavering spirit for freedom and upward mobility. I reflect on the joy and hope they had to one day see the American Dream they built for so many others. Freed enslaved people were promised by law forty acres as compensation and a means to upward mobility. These reparations have been denied to the people. No number can adequately compensate. Every aspect of who they were was robbed of them. To be young, gifted, and Black was not an understatement. The entire world, in their eyes, had just opened up. Little did my ancestors realize the many significant accomplishments of their descendants. Black Americans would go on to patent well over 50,000 inventions, according to the Brookings Institute, not to mention inventions that were not documented, allowed to be patented, or stolen from Black inventors. The likes of which include the light bulb by Lewis Latimer, folding chair, gas mask, traffic signal, and automatic elevator doors by profound inventors. One of the greatest inventors, Granville T. Woods, an accomplished Black American inventor, made significant contributions to the fields of electricity and telegraphic communications, amassing over 60 patents throughout his career. Another accomplishment we also celebrate during the month of June is the origin of music from Black Americans. Often seen as the backbone of southern culture, its roots spread across the entire United States from the likes of rock and roll, country, and heavy metal to the more commonly known hip-hop, jazz, and rhythm & blues. The contributions of Black Americans after receiving freedom are just as prolific.
Black Americans continued their legacy of community building as they set up enclaves and founded towns with thriving institutions and schools, and established financial markets throughout the United States. A well-documented community is Black Wall Streets in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Many such thriving communities were destroyed, flooded, burned, or sabotaged. But that perceived intimidation didn’t stop Black Americans’ plight. Innovation, freedom fighting, community building, and libration are the culture of Black Americans. Throughout history, these are the attributes that reflect the identity of Black Americans. The ability to do many of these things even while enslaved is profound.
We are a people of extraordinary strength. As I reflect on what Juneteenth means for me as a Black American, it is this same pride that triggers in me the joys of being Black American and the importance of the plight of my ancestors in their beloved homeland, The United States of America. They did not give up on their dream of the America they knew she could be. They set out to make America great through contributions to industrialism, culture, and liberty.
As a social worker, I often consider how who I am shapes the work that I am so committed and proud to do. I challenge my notions of how I build systems of liberation for the Black clients/communities that I serve. I question how I implore a human rights-based approach to Black empowerment. It is essential that, as a social worker, I do not allow such an occasion to become performative and or commercialized. I reflect on how Juneteenth’s significance is paramount for Black Americans and the importance of this time of celebration, remembrance, and even some mourning. The observance of Black Americans for this freedom day is particularly sobering because of our lineage with ancestors who were slaves in the United States. Still, it should be reflected upon by all Americans.
As a Black American social worker, I think through the humility that must be present to understand the significance of this holiday truly. What a joy it is to call this country indigenously my home, but what sadness is ever present to know that chattel slavery existed while others lived free? As a Black American, our entire culture and heritage are on the land; my ancestors were pivotal in building, shaping, and maintaining this beautiful country. Yet there is still so much more work to be done. I hold to what freedom my ancestors fought for. Therefore, when I celebrate Juneteenth, I celebrate from a place of humility, gratitude, and hope. The word celebrate seems oddly placed for such an occasion. Commemorate is seemingly more appropriate. But true to the culture of Black Americans as a people of hope, we have often had to use celebrations as currency to keep us going.
I reflect fondly on the strength and beauty of my grandparents, as they never gave up on America being the beautiful land she is rumored to be. They, my grandparents, were from Louisiana and Texas and later migrated to Oakland, California. I fondly remember celebrating Blackness from Juneteenth to Black Cowboys in parades. I will never know what it felt like to experience freedom for the last enslaved people in Texas. But I know what it feels like to dream, hope and dedicate yourself to a mission and calling for a better beloved America. The Juneteenth Flag history beautifully paints a picture of this hope. The five-pointed star symbolizes Texas’s “Lone Star state” and the “freedom of African Americans in all 50 states”. Surrounding it is a nova “new star” representing a new beginning for all. The arch on the flag represents a new horizon. The colors red, white, and blue represent the significance of Black American heritage as the United States of America is their heritage and lineage.
As I celebrate Juneteenth, Freedom Day, and Emancipation Day – no truer words have been spoken than those of Frederick Douglass.
“The first of January, 1863, was a memorable day in the progress of American liberty and civilization. It was the turning-point in the conflict between freedom and slavery. A death-blow was given to the slaveholding rebellion. Until then the federal arm had been more than tolerant to that relic of barbarism. (p. 351)”
History of the Juneteenth Flag: Link Here
Published Articles: Link Here
Cromartie, J. V. (2014). Freedom Came at Different Times: A Comparative Analysis of Emancipation Day and
Juneteenth Celebrations. In NAAAS Conference Proceedings (p. 1550). National Association of African American Studies.
Cook, Lisa D. 2014. “Violence and economic activity: evidence from African American patents, 1870–1940.” Journal of Economic Growth 19 (2): 221-257.
Fogel, R. W. (1974). Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Slavery. Little, Brown and Company.