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Juneteenth: Commemorate, Celebrate, and Elevate

Juneteenth graphic

On Juneteenth, Keilah Jacques, Associate Director of SOURCE and a faculty member in Health, Behavior, and Society; Joel Bolling, Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion; and Keshia Pollack Porter, Associate Dean for Faculty, created a space for education and community.

The virtual event, “Juneteenth: Commemorate, Celebrate and Elevate”, which drew an audience of more than 400 participants, took place on Friday, June 19 at eleven in the morning; the last hour of a workday that was earlier in the week declared a half-day holiday for Johns Hopkins employees. A renewed focus on the commemoration arose after a month of anguish and protests following the homicide of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

But Juneteenth is not a federally recognized holiday and many people lack both the historical context and revolutionary concept of the only commemoration of the ending of slavery in the US. Jacques and colleagues gave their time and their intellect to educate the School community on Juneteenth, and to discuss what honoring the day truly means for an academic institution.

The conversation was led by Jacques and moderated by Bolling. Jacques began with a “mindful moment” honoring the lives of eight Black people whose murders have sparked outrage: Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd. Jacques then shared her personal history with Juneteenth while growing up in Texas where Juneteenth has been a state holiday since 1980. Her family—guided by her mother, a clinical social worker—treated the commemoration as a Sabbath, “a day to gather, to have critical history-centered conversations, and a day to focus on rest.”

Jacques, a faculty member at the Bloomberg School, is also a scholar and public health social worker who said that early conversations with her mother about historical trauma and how Black people are represented in certain spaces helped frame Juneteenth as a time to reflect on the differences between Black freedom and Black liberation. This thinking also shapes Jacques’ work as a scholar of liberatory consciousness

Historically, Juneteenth is centered at a “four way stop” between the slavery, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Reconstruction. Black freedom was granted in 1863 but it took until 1865 for Union soldiers to gallop into Galveston with the news.

Even then, Jacques notes, that freedom “was not centered in full citizenship.” Black people may have no longer been slaves by law, but racist ideologies persisted and prevented them from basic rights like property ownership and the right to vote, resulting in the 13th amendment.

So, what began as a celebration of freedom has evolved into a day of rest and a day to consider the ways in which Black people continue to have to fight for their own liberation. Between 1865 and 2020, Juneteenth has gone in and out of public consciousness, re-emerging at the public forefront now at a moment when the torturous killing of a Black man galvanized a nation that has watched the murders of so many other Black people, especially men, and people of color at the hands of police. This Juneteenth is also inextricable from the COVID-19 pandemic that has disproportionately killed communities of color in the U.S.

Still, why now?

Jacques says one way to approach this Juneteenth is to see it as a mirror where we are “once again examining the erosion to Black health and the stress associated with not being deemed ‘fully human.’ The law might have changed, but we haven’t evolved very far from the ideology behind the law in our policies, practices, and procedures.”

It’s a long overdue, strategic time to examine these ideologies and how they have contributed not only to unconscionable violence and cavernous health disparities, but to the day to day “weathering” of Black people that occurs from the frustration and stress of simply being Black in a majority white culture. This moment of reckoning offers the opportunity to unpack all the ways in which racism shows up at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels, Jacques says, and to fully commit to Black liberation as the goal.

On a societal level, Jacques says Black liberation looks like economic wellbeing, better quality of life and health, and full citizenship. For allies who are not Black, this requires an understanding of history and self-reflection to assess how equity and anti-racism is or is not being centered in the spaces we inhabit—and then, importantly, a commitment to conscious and continual action to get closer to centering antiracism in every way possible.

How can institutions address racism?

On the micro level, Black people in academia often perform many roles—their own scholarly work plus the work of educating and engaging colleagues on equity issues. Bolling pointed out that communities of color are also strapped with the burden of having to understand the norms and functions of majority identity communities—as many academic institutions are—in order to navigate them.

This is all labor, Jacques says, that should be acknowledged and rewarded. A half-day holiday for Juneteenth provides some space for rest, but institutions should also look for other ways to support Black faculty, staff, and students. Encouraging work from home, investing in personal and professional advancement and leadership development, and ensuring recruitment and retention of Black students, faculty, and staff are other ways to bolster the success and wellbeing of Black and people of color at the institutional level.

At the macro level, a liberatory consciousness—also referred to as critical consciousness or structural competence—requires institutions to grapple with how Black people have contributed to research and the advancement of science, and how those communities are honored. Juneteenth can provide a pause in normal work for institutions to think through how to move the needle on issues like health equity and anti-racism, while centering the humanity of those same groups, and practice transparency.

Institutions can also help lift and support the work of community organizations who are addressing Black liberation, engage them in discussions of work to be done, and acknowledge and honor their work, lived experiences, and expertise, especially through compensation as forms of actioned solidarity.

To truly begin to move towards Black liberation in all the spaces we inhabit, reflection on this work need not be relegated to a single half-day once a year.

“This moment is an exhausting moment,” Bolling says. “There is a flurry of activity; everyone wants to do so much and change so much. As I’ve asked friends, colleagues, and family members, where will people be a month from now? Six months from now? A year from now? How do we continue to center the attention on antiracism and Black Lives Matter?”

The answer to that question became a question for the audience: “How much are you willing to commit to this work?”

You can watch the full discussion, including audience Q&A, here.

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