On June 17, 2021, Harvard Division of Continuing Education hosted a discussion panel featuring four experts on race, history, and anthropology. They speak to questions including what Americans can do to celebrate Juneteenth, fight for equity, and invoke calls to action. A full transcript of the discussion is posted below.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Kristen L. Pope: Good Afternoon Harvard Division of Continuing Education community and attendees from around the world. Thank you for joining our first, but not last conversation to discuss the Past, Present, and Future of Juneteenth.
My name is Kristen L. Pope. I manage social media for the division of continuing education. I have the honor and privilege of moderating today’s timely and deeply relevant panel conversation.
We have the opportunity to have attendee questions at the end of our panel, so please stay on for that. And now, we’d like to start with an introduction from DCE’s Associate Dean of Students, Shirley Greene.
Shirley Greene: As Harvard University prepares to celebrate another Juneteenth holiday, I am deeply honored and grateful for the opportunity to join you today on behalf of and the Division of Continuing Education. I’d like to start off today’s session with an important question. What does Juneteenth mean to you? As you take a moment to reflect on this question, please allow me to share a brief history of Juneteenth.
Juneteenth marks the day that slavery officially ended in the United States, on June 19, 1865. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation promised freedom to enslaved people in Confederate states on January 1, 1863, following the four-year Civil War. However, it was a full two and a half years before all states were compelled to honor this executive order, effectively freeing the 250,000 people still being held under slavery in Texas.
We join you in giving this holiday the national recognition it deserves, while acknowledging that many members of the African-American community continue to struggle for the dignity, access, equality, equity, and inclusion that was envisioned by the Emancipation Proclamation and not yet realized, even after its aftermath. As history has shown us, these basic but powerful tools of freedom continue to come at a high cost, as evidenced by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and many others whose lives were tragically cut short.
As you continue to prepare for the major celebrations being held in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Houston, my hometown of Atlanta, Charleston, Philadelphia, and many other cities, we invite you to join us in embracing this opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what meaningful actions we can take as individuals and as a collective to enable things to keep moving forward.
So I ask you again, what does Juneteenth mean to you? Now that you’ve had a moment to reflect on this question, we hope that we embrace a shared meaning that encourages each of us to take meaningful action to improve the lives and experiences of others, to embrace difference and celebrate diversity, to welcome others into our communities, to advocate for others, and to educate ourselves about Juneteenth, while actively seeking out opportunities to learn about other cultures.
On behalf of Dean Coleman and DCE leadership, please join us in not only celebrating Juneteenth with our colleagues, friends, families, and allies, but in also remaining steadfast in our commitment to advancing access, equality, diversity, inclusion, belonging, peace, and most importantly, freedom, particularly for those communities for whom true freedom is not yet realized. Thank you.
Kristen L. Pope: We thank Dean Greene for her thoughtful remarks, and for setting the stage for all we will talk about this afternoon. The acknowledgment and recognition of Juneteenth is even more timely, as it’s headed to become a federally recognized holiday with the congressional passage.
Today, I am thrilled and humbled to introduce our outstanding lineup of panelists, who will expound more on the significance of Juneteenth.
Joining me, we have Dr. Gloria Ayee, lecturer in government at Harvard University and faculty associate with the Carr Center for Human Rights in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government; Dr. Sherri Ann Charleston, historian and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Harvard University; James Herron, instructor of anthropology at Harvard Extension School and director of the Harvard Writing Project; and Alexis Griffith-Waye, instructor for Harvard Professional Development Programs and director of employee learning and development at the Center for Workplace Development for Harvard University.
Thank you all for joining me in this conversation. We’re going to launch right into what we are talking about today. And I pose this question first to James and Sherri Ann:
Is Juneteenth a time for celebration?
Sherri Ann Charleston: Well first, thank you to the organizers for pulling this together. It is fantastic to have an opportunity to be here with you all this afternoon to have this important conversation. And thank you to all the participants who are here. You know, I think it says a lot about where we are as a country and where we have been that there are over 500 people on this call today, and we’re celebrating in community. And so even though we can’t be together physically, I am so grateful to see so many people here.
You know, so the short answer is yes. I think that Juneteenth is absolutely worthy of celebration and commemoration. It is certainly, I think, a time to, in a way, by acknowledging through celebration, that it is something worthy for us to consider celebratory, putting the final death knell, if you will, or maybe pardon the expression, into the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery in the country, and celebrating the idea that we are moving past that moment in history.
There is certainly something to be said about arriving at the official federal recognition of Juneteenth as a holiday in 2021, hundreds of years later. That tells us perhaps why it’s more important than ever that we finally arrive at this place of sort of national reckoning to reach this point of resolution.
In many ways, now that we stand on the precipice of national recognition of the holiday, perhaps it’s not just a moment of celebration, which I think it certainly is for generations of African-Americans who trace our lineage back to people who were enslaved, and those who celebrate the freedom of enslaved individuals and the end of slavery in the United States, but it’s also a moment of reflection. So it’s sort of celebratory reflection, I will say, and opportunity for us to really think critically about the moment, to think retrospectively about the history, because it’s only then that we can fully embrace an idea that we should be celebrating, when we know exactly what it is that we’re celebrating freedom from.
James Herron: Thank you all for coming. Appreciate your attendance. So just to remind you, the question is, is Juneteenth a time for celebration? I think of course it’s a time for celebration. It marks the end of slavery. I would also think that it will always be a time marked by ambivalence, as well, because we must reflect on the horrors and injustice of slavery. I would also hope that Juneteenth would be an occasion to celebrate the importance and centrality of African-Americans in US history and culture.
As I think most of us know, many white Americans do not acknowledge either the legacy of slavery or the importance of African-Americans in the history of this country. For many whites, US history is history of white people, and nonwhites are sort of seen as supporting actors, or even, in some cases, impediments to the progress of the nation. This is sort of the classic racist frame. And of course, that is a false narrative. And we need to keep in mind, I think, that African-Americans built this country. And they need to be acknowledged as fully central to the history of this country.
We sometimes hear about people of color being marginalized in the US. And of course, there’s truth to that. But there’s another sense in which people of color have never been marginalized in the US. They’ve always been central and, in fact, foundational to the US—to the economy, to the culture, to language, to art. But again, many Americans, especially white Americans, do not acknowledge these contributions. And so I would think that Juneteenth could be an occasion for doing so.
Kristen L. Pope: Both of you spoke on the fact that this is an opportunity for significance. So in total, Juneteenth is worth celebrating, it should be celebrated, and now, with the congressional passage of Juneteenth, it is center stage. This question is for Alexis and Gloria:
What does this recognition mean for Black communities, as far as Juneteenth is concerned?
Gloria Ayee: First, I just want to begin by thanking the organizers and Harvard University Division of Continuing Education for putting together this important event to commemorate Juneteenth this year.
Juneteenth is also known as Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day, and Juneteenth Independence Day, officially recognizing when African-Americans who were still enslaved were freed in Texas in the wake of the Civil War and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. And it’s certainly worthy of commemoration.
Incidentally, today’s event is truly special, as it comes on the heels of historic legislation that was passed just yesterday. On Tuesday [June 15, 2021], the US Senate unanimously approved the bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. And acting with unexpected haste, the members of the House of Representatives voted on the bill last night [June 16, 2021], and it passed overwhelmingly, 415 to 14. Of course, there were 14 house Republicans who opposed the bill for several reasons, including the false argument that it is an attempt to reframe the story of America’s creation. So according to his official schedule, President Biden will sign the bill into law this afternoon. So we’re looking forward to that.
The legislation, officially called the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, was reintroduced in February of this year by senators Edward Markey, Tina Smith, Cory Booker, and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee. Juneteenth is currently recognized by 47 states and the District of Columbia as an official state holiday or observance. In 1980, Texas was the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday. With the signing of this bill into law, Juneteenth will become the 12th official federal holiday. The last time there was an official designation of a federal holiday was almost 40 years ago, when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was signed into law in 1983.
As Senator Warnock said following the Senate’s approval of the bill on Tuesday, and I quote, “The overwhelming bipartisan support to make Juneteenth a national holiday is a reminder of what our country is capable of when we don’t allow divisions to censor our past or stymie our march towards progress.” I think that it is critical that we now have state and national recognition of Juneteenth because, for far too long, the complete truth about America’s history of slavery and its legacy has not been widely acknowledged.
Juneteenth presents us all with the opportunity to celebrate the resilience of the Black community, while acknowledging the historical injustices and continuing trauma that enslaved people and generations of their descendants have faced in the United States. Increased recognition of Juneteenth is simply another significant way for all Americans to reckon with our difficult history and recommit ourselves to working towards promoting racial healing and reconciliation, and fighting for liberty, justice, and equity for all. The national recognition of Juneteenth, I will argue, will also help to center the experience of Black Americans in the story of freedom in the United States.
Alexis Griffith-Waye: I want to be really transparent with this audience, and just divulge right up front that I didn’t grow up, even though I’m clearly a Black woman, I didn’t grow up understanding or even really knowing about Juneteenth. Of course, in my family and my friends, and at school, we learned, of course, about the Emancipation Proclamation, and we understood the importance of it.
But I did not come from a community that spoke about Juneteenth, that celebrated Juneteenth. I do believe that it was much later in my adulthood when I at least began to hear about this wonderful celebration. But it wasn’t until I moved from the Midwest to Boston seven years ago that I really found myself in a community that celebrated Juneteenth.
And so seven years ago tomorrow, or possibly the next day, because we know when we celebrate Juneteenth, was actually my very first experience here in Boston at Franklin Park. And it was glorious. There were people all over the park, interracially together. It wasn’t just an all-Black event or celebration, which, quite frankly, is what I had expected. But it was all of the celebration that you would imagine. There was fabulous food and music and beautiful children running about free, and just expressing themselves in all the wonderful ways that our children do.
And so when I was asked to participate in this wonderful event—and I thank you sincerely for considering me to talk on this panel with so many wonderful people—I actually reached out to my community and asked them the question that you asked us, Kristin. So I asked them, what does the increased state and national recognition of Juneteenth mean for you as a Black American? And the responses that I received from my friends and family were across the board, as you might imagine.
Some of my circle of loved ones said that they thought it was long overdue, couldn’t believe that we are just now, in 2021, receiving this type of recognition. And there were others that said that they were saddened yet thrilled that more—not just Black Americans—but that all Americans would really come to know what this wonderful celebration is. And they all stressed the same thing, that this not become another day where we are simply, we get off work. And we know how hard folks work, and so we certainly appreciate those wanting to take a little time for themselves but know there was a greater call to really hearken back to our childhoods.
I remember well when I was in my preteens all the way up through the time that I left my parents’ home for college, Martin Luther King Day was a day when we came together as a family. And we would watch historical movies, we would listen to the I Have a Dream speech. We actually would even have contests in our family to see who could deliver portions of it the best and win the prize for that year.
And so what was really clear is a hope that it become more than just a day off work, that we use this time to really educate ourselves and rededicate ourselves to the struggle that we know, while many of us have wonderful blessings and numerous countless privileges, there’s still so many that don’t. And so we hope that that’s what we’re going to see continue from this wonderful start of celebrating Juneteenth.
Kristen L. Pope: Thank you, Alexis. And thank you for being transparent and sharing personally. And as we discussed before, you are not the only person of color, not the only Black person who shares your experience, many of us do, in terms of becoming familiar and acquainted with Juneteenth.
Now, I just want to give a shout out to the chat real quick because we have people from all over. I see greetings from Nigeria, greetings from Canada, greetings from Texas, greetings from New York. So I just want to acknowledge that there are people joining us from India, from Kenya, Brazil, from Mexico. This is a global discussion. So I just wanted to let you all know that.
We’re going to go to the next question. This goes back to Sherri Ann and Alexis:
What are some little-known figures or some little-known facts related to Juneteenth?
Alexis Griffith-Waye: So Sherri and I, we had a little chat back and forth about—because there’s so many important and wonderful things that we wanted to share, so we kind of divvied up the sharing of important facts. And the one that really stood out for me, and as I mentioned, I am taking a real personal look at this wonderful celebration of Juneteenth, but as I mentioned, I didn’t know a lot about it.
And so as I started to do my research, the thing that I remember struck me was the flag. The Juneteenth flag was completely unfamiliar to me. I had never even seen it before. And when I saw it, to be honest, it did not resonate for me as a Black woman. Like, I thought the colors would be black and red and green. Those are the colors that I always think about when I think about my people. But the colors were red, white, and blue.
And I thought, OK, I need to do a little bit of research to try to understand. And so I just wanted to share with you real quickly that the Juneteenth flag was really drafted and sketched out by a gentleman named Ben Haith. And Ben was called Boston Ben because he was right here, born and reared in the Boston community. And as he thought about trying to represent Black America, what he realized is that you can’t separate Blacks from America. It’s not possible. And so he felt that he was really honoring the colors of red, white, and blue. And so those are the colors of the Juneteenth flag.
He also included an arc. And then in the center of an arc is a star. And I’ll be honest with you, the star gave me pause and a little bit of stress because the star hearkens back to Texas. And we know that we oftentimes refer to Texas as the Lone Star. We also know that there are stars, of course, on the American flag. And that was the connection that he was making.
I struggled with that because Texas was also, depending on how you view the history, one of the last states to actually acknowledge [the Emancipation Proclamation]. I mean, it was signed in , and it wasn’t until  that Texas—and it was actually someone from the Union that rode in to Texas to tell them, hello, no, we’re here, and these wonderful human beings are free. So I was a little stressed that that star represented back to Texas, but I have to respect Ben. And his goal was to bring us all together.
And then lastly, I just wanted to share that the arc is really to acknowledge all that Black Americans have coming, all of what we are going to accomplish, all of the success that we can now really believe in and strive for. So I just wanted to share a little bit of information about the flag of Juneteenth.
Sherri Ann Charleston: You know, so I will also, with my fellow Midwesterner Alexis, from [INAUDIBLE] you know, so I grew up in Detroit and we certainly did not celebrate Juneteenth. The way that we started to even understand Juneteenth is going to tell you a little bit about my own point of context and point of reference in pop culture.
For one my mother married a Texan. And in a very Texas way, my stepfather said, “What do you mean, you all don’t celebrate Juneteenth? This is part of your history. I can’t believe we don’t celebrate Juneteenth.” And so I say that as a sort of very Texas thing to do.
I had a conversation earlier this week with Dr. Annette Gordon-Reed, and we were talking about the imposition of the Texas way of life on the rest of the world, the Texasfication of the US being a very Texas thing to do, and that was definitely my stepfather’s way. So Juneteenth was a thing.
And then for many of us who grew up in the ’90s, I think it was, there was a movie that was set in Galveston, oh, I’m sorry, that was set in Houston, where Juneteenth was celebrated. And that was the first time that I actually saw it being celebrated.
So I say that to say that this sort of steady movement across the country, I think, has started out of Texas. And I—I’m sorry, I’m going to find the name of the movie and I will bring it up in my next comment. But you know, Jason’s Lyric, yes, thank you, team. So you should—so if anybody is interested in historical representations of Juneteenth, you should watch Jason’s Lyric. It’s also very good movie.
But so that’s my funny Juneteenth fact is that Juneteenth is featured in Jason’s Lyric. For all of you who are young enough to have missed Jason’s Lyric, which is a lot of our students. And this is the point where I realized how old I am, because everybody’s going to say, oh, my God, I can’t even find that on Netflix anymore, and then it’s going to be a whole thing, but that’s beside the point.
The other piece that I think is important to recognize is just the way that we actually situate Juneteenth within the rest of the history. So a lot of us think about this moment where General Granger’s Order Number 3 comes in and announces the end of slavery as sort of the official day where we commemorate Juneteenth. What we see, and for those of you who had an opportunity to look at Dr. Gordon-Reed’s book, you’ll see her talk about this, as well, that enslaved people began celebrating even days before General Granger arrived and issued his order, which meant that people were already starting to develop a growing sense that freedom was coming.
Why is this important? It’s important because we often think about that Emancipation Proclamation as a thing that actually ended slavery. But it’s really, it was an order that had to be enforced. So it declared that any state still in rebellion, their slaves would be free. But in order for that to become a fait accompli, the Union forces actually had to arrive and make that happen.
So effectively, by the time General Granger arrives, the Civil War had ended because there had already been a surrender, even though the last battle in Texas has still been fought. My point is that the decision by freedmen to celebrate their freedom prior even to the issuance of the order demonstrates the insurrectionists and insurgency that people of color had and their resistance to slavery Black people had, and there was resistance to slavery from the very beginning
I bring this up so that we understand the importance of really celebrating, of really celebrating the moment of freedom and what that meant. And then the last thing I’ll say is I think that is also important for us to recognize that even in that order the General Granger issued, it really hearkened to something that we saw earlier in the war, which is this notion that freedmen needed equality and they needed life and liberty.
So that order actually spoke to freedom and equity in a way that we wouldn’t see borne out for many, many years to come. I bring this up because in many ways there’s a steady line between Sherman’s Order Number 15, where he issued, where he basically empowers freemen to have land and 40 acres and a mule—which is where we get that language—that sort of that sense of unrequited equality that many communities will hold on to.
And then you have this. You have General Granger’s order that comes after that. My point is that there’s this longer history that if we acknowledge and delve into a little bit, it gives us more context to think about really what it is that free people were so jubilant about. Not just the opportunity to be free, but to be free with equality, with land, and with a fully recognized citizenship that would give them equitable access, really, to the dreams that were embedded in the Declaration of Independence itself.
Kristen L. Pope: Sherri, thank you so much. And that’s so much of why we are having this conversation, because there is such, it seems like such mystery had been around Juneteenth in the concept and the idea that there is so much more history for us to dig into and it positions us, as what you said, positions us perfectly for our next question, which does belong to James and Gloria:
Freedom is just the beginning. It’s the bare minimum. So what can an individual do to fight for true equality and true equity?
James Herron: Yeah, so this is a question that I take to refer to the question of racial equality. And so I interpret this question to be how do we fight for racial equality. Now that’s a very difficult and big question, and I only have a few minutes.
So I just want to share my thinking on this based on, I’ve taught a course on race at the Extension School for about 17 years. And I think my basic answer to that question, how do we fight for racial equality, has, basically, my view is that racism tends to thrive in capitalist societies, especially what some commentators have called low-road capitalist societies, such as the US.
Societies with high levels of inequality, low wages, lots of insecurity for ordinary people, with very few social welfare provisions, that kind of society tends to be one in which racism tends to thrive. And so my view is that ultimately what we need to do to fight racism—this is the macro answer. There are many things, of course, one could say, right? But I think the answer is to erode capitalism.
When short of that—that’s a tall order—I think we need to make capitalism less capitalistic, less unequal, less characterized by domination and exploitation. That’s what I think. I mean, just to elaborate on this a little bit more. I think racism tends to thrive in societies with high levels of inequality generally. I think that when you have a situation, as we do in the US, in which much of the population experiences a great deal of material insecurity, that is, they don’t know if they’re going to have a job. They don’t know if they’re going to have health care. There’s a lot of insecurity.
When you have that situation, people tend to feel that their welfare is in competition with the welfare of others. They feel that if I am going to do better, someone has to do worse, and if they’re doing better, I have to do worse. And that is a breeding ground for racism.
I think the other lesson about capitalist societies is oftentimes in such societies, the upper class tends to lack legitimacy. They tend to be trying to sort of look to legitimize their rule in various ways. And one very—if you look at the history, during the period of slavery, during the period of Jim Crow, to the present—one constant is that racism has been deployed as a political tool.
Think about Trump, right? It’s been deployed as a tool. And so part of the problem is we have a context in which that there’s always the temptation to use that tool to divide the population. Those are, I think, are the basic conditions under which racism tends to be persistent. It has been very persistent in this country. Slavery is long gone, so is Jim Crow, yet we still have racism.
And so we need to look—and I think we can’t look at racism as simply a legacy of the past that’s left over. If we have it, it’s because it’s still working for somebody in the society. It’s still serving some interests. And so I think we need to think about it that way, not as a legacy but as something in the present.
Gloria Ayee: Thank you, James. I would agree, yes, that freedom is only the beginning. And I would even argue that many are still not free. And Kristen, I’m glad that in framing your question, you asked about what individuals can do in the fight for true equity, rather than asking just about equality.
Because when we talk about equality, we are considering the ways that individuals and communities are provided with access to the same resources and opportunities. This is very important, of course, but when we talk about the sociopolitical context in the United States, it is imperative that our discussion focuses specifically on equity, which recognizes that individuals come from different socioeconomic backgrounds and are faced with different circumstances.
So the goal is to allocate resources and opportunities that directly address specific needs to produce an outcome that is equal for all people. In other words, everyone is provided with what they need individually to succeed.
So in a race-focused conversation in the United States, one of the biggest challenges that we are facing is engaging in productive discussions about systemic racism and acknowledging its root causes, as well as how integral it is to the structure our nation has. James has just commented on.
So in the fight for true equity, individuals should begin with the basic acknowledgment that we live in a society that is inherently unequal, and that many people continue to be marginalized and oppressed by unjust systems and institutions, in addition to experiencing incidents of interpersonal racism, of course, which we know that manifests itself as bigotry, racial violence, and hate speech, as well.
Understanding these complex dynamics is the starting point, I would say, for working towards achieving equity in our communities. That said, I would also like to offer three practical things that individuals can do as they work to fight for equality:
First, I would suggest that it is important for us to connect with and support the work of other community members and organizations that are trying to assist members of marginalized communities. For example, people can support both the local chapters and the national bodies of organizations like the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the National Urban League. Extending this conversation beyond African-Americans, the same applies for supporting the work of other groups that are fighting for justice and equity for other marginalized populations. Supporting organizations makes the efforts seem less insurmountable.
The second thing I would suggest is that people should be open to listening to others, especially those with different world views and having difficult conversations. The caveat here, of course, is to know when to expend emotional energy that will lead to a productive outcome. Amnesty International also recommends that we are all deliberate about calling out and condemning incidences of racism when we see it, and we should be really mindful of doing that.
And the third and final point I’d like to make is that we should encourage each other to take political action. This can be done in many ways but the most obvious, of course, is to vote in local and federal elections, and I cannot underscore this point enough. So let’s all remember that voting gives each of us the power to exercise our voice and elect individuals who will properly represent the interests of our communities and work towards achieving the kind of social and economic change that we need in our society.
Kristen L. Pope: Gloria, thank you so much. Thank you both. This goes into our next question. We have two questions left specifically that are panel-related questions. And I’m going to bring back Sherri and Alexis for these two questions, Dean Greene talked about that many places, including Boston, now hold Juneteenth celebrations. Minneapolis holds one of the nation’s largest Juneteenth celebrations. It was also where George Floyd was murdered and where Derek Chauvin was convicted.
How have the events of the past year affected the way in which people observe Juneteenth?
Sherri Ann Charleston: You know, I think that this is actually a follow up to James’s point. What we are facing is this moment of sort of national reckoning. In many ways we have not—James’s and Gloria’s point, actually—in many ways we have not reckoned fully with the legacy of slavery in the country.
My own work is on late 19th, early 20th century US history, and what you see sort of in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War is this moment to sort of reunify the country. And by reunifying the country that really means creating unity between North and South, and white males in the voting space in particular.
And to do that, it often came at the expense of the rights for full citizenship of Black Americans. The challenge then becomes as a country, having made the choice to effectively reunify without resolving the moment that we were in, sort of creates this space where there’s unrequited need to grapple with achieving full citizenship and the enjoyment of full citizenship for Black Americans.
And so what we’re—and not just for Black Americans, of course, but in particular, because we’re talking about in this post-George Floyd moment—in this moment where we’re reckoning with racialized killing in the country, it’s a moment of national reckoning. We’re realizing that the work has yet to be finished. And so that’s where we’re at. It’s this moment of seeing the unfinished work of emancipation and reconstruction come home to roost. And it is now our opportunity to start to think about how we really want to move this country forward.
And so I think it’s a very hopeful moment in that way, because it suggests to me that we are perhaps at a space where we can actually grapple with—this is just one of the things that we have to grapple with as a country, to be clear. There are many others. But this is one key component and aspect that if we don’t grapple with, I think we will continue to struggle with for the next 156 years, if not, more.
Kristen L. Pope: Thank you so much, Sherri. You are so right. Piggybacking off of what Gloria said before, our most powerful as a citizen is to vote, and we know that even while we are grappling with Juneteenth, we’re also still grappling with voting rights being on the table. So you are 100% right that there are just so many issues on the table. Alexis.
Alexis Griffith-Waye: Yes, you are so perfectly spot on, and I really don’t have a lot more to add to that. I really just want to, I think, maybe just briefly elaborate on the importance of us recognizing that we are in a moment. You know when I read the question, it threw me, to be honest. It really did. Because you’re right, we can look at Minneapolis holding one of the largest Juneteenth celebrations in our nation, and yet, we know what happened there.
And so it really takes me back to the need for the community, and as Sherri has said, and James and Gloria, as well, this really isn’t a Black problem. This is a world problem. We’re focusing right now in the US. This is an “us” problem, because as long as there’s a foot on my neck, there will be a foot on someone else’s neck, and it won’t just be Blacks and people of color. This violence, this form of hatred, it has permeated.
And I know we were briefly talking about the class system and the caste system, well, guess what? If you are not in that top 10%, you are right here with the rest of us. So if it lands on me, trust it will land on you, as well. We have to come together as a human race to say, no more, no more.
Kristen L. Pope: Thank you, Alexis. Thank you, Sherri. Our last panel question, you all set– you set us up perfectly for our last question, and speaking about the moment, that this is just a moment. My last question for James and for Gloria:
How do we make sure that Juneteenth becomes more than a moment, more than a monument, and instead becomes a call to action?
James Herron: Yeah, that’s a really hard question I struggle with that question. So I want to finesse it a little bit, which is so I think, as my colleagues here point out, what’s excited about this moment is that it’s now being acknowledged as a national holiday. And I really think it’s maybe an opportunity for us to think as Americans about the fact that we are, in fact, a mixed hybrid culture. We’re a creole culture. We always have been.
So maybe one perspective that I bring to this panel is I’m a Latin Americanist. I did my research in South America, in Colombia. And one interesting thing about Latin America, like the US, Latin American countries, they’re mixed countries. They’re ethnically, racially mixed, culturally mixed. But often in Latin America, people acknowledge that mixture. So if you ask a Colombian, a person in Bogota, you know, what are you? They will say mixed. Everyone says that. No one says, “I’m white.” Well, no, that’s not true. Some people do. But most people say they’re mixed. If you go to Brazil, you’ll see that people celebrate European cultural traditions and African cultural traditions side by side as part of their heritage, in open acknowledgment that this is a mixed country, a mixed culture.
The US is just as mixed as those countries are, always has been. But we don’t acknowledge it. We pretend. We have this idea that it’s a white culture, whatever that is. And I feel like the fact that Juneteenth is now being brought as a national holiday for everyone, that this is a way that we can finally start to come to terms with the fact that we are a creole, mixed, hybrid culture with contributions from Africa, Native Americans, Latin Americans, Europeans, as a hybrid. And that mixture is really what a creole culture is meant to convey, is that when you have people coming together in a new context, typically in the context of colonialism, what happens is something new, a new culture, a new kind of culture, that is not reducible to the sum of its parts.
It’s not reducible, either, to it’s African or European or Native American components. It’s something new and something that can be celebrated as something new. And so I think it would be great if Juneteenth could be thought of as a way of sort of acknowledging the hybridity that it’s always been.
Gloria Ayee: Thanks, James. And thanks for this excellent question, another really great question. As someone who studies race and ethnic politics and also truth commissions, truth and reconciliation processes, I really found this question important to consider critically because it sort of melds my two areas of specialization. So I’m coming with my response from that angle.
As noted earlier, Juneteenth first became a state holiday in Texas in 1980. And since then, every state except South Dakota has officially commemorated the holiday, but only a few states actually observe the day as a paid holiday. And of course, with the legislation that was just passed and, of course, with that bill now heading to the desk of our president, we are looking to see this as a federal holiday. But the thing about holidays is that sometimes they can become just that—a holiday. And often holidays become highly commercialized, which is perhaps even more of a concern for this issue with Juneteenth becoming a monument or a moment that is observed for a fleeting period every year rather than really critical engagement and reflection.
I would suggest that to avoid this, every individual should feel some sense of obligation to learn more about the truth of America’s history. We must also recommit ourselves to becoming better citizens and to be invested in doing the difficult and painful work that racial reconciliation requires of each of us.
By simply pausing to reflect on why we commemorate Juneteenth, we can honor the memories of enslaved peoples. We then have the responsibility of identifying concrete ways of eradicating racism by dismantling the systems of oppression that persist in our nation.
John Cornyn, a Republican Senator from Texas, described the passage of the bill as an important symbolic gesture and a way to reach out to people of different races and say that even though Juneteenth has been celebrated within the African-American community in Texas and elsewhere in the country, this is something that all Americans can celebrate and hopefully this will promote greater understanding. I do agree with Senator Cornyn’s comment, but I really want to point out something really interesting about what he said in describing the passage of the bill to commemorate Juneteenth as symbolic.
His comments really reveal problematic issues centering on race and race relations that are at the forefront of politics in the United States today, including but certainly not limited to the fact that voting rights are under attack nationwide as states pass voter suppression laws, there are continued concerns about police brutality and an unjust legal system, and of course, efforts to ban the teaching of history in a way that accurately details the truth about white supremacy and racial hierarchy.
We also cannot ignore the fact that the same historical patterns of discrimination continue to exist in American society despite resolute arguments about race-blind policies. So it is very important that we all concede that most Americans have been presented with a sanitized story about the Civil War, its causes, its aftermath, and the legacy of slavery and racial segregation.
We shouldn’t see Juneteenth as just a symbolic gesture, but really actively work to recognize its importance. And I will end simply by saying that observing Juneteenth National Independence Day, the full name, is a way to honor Black people’s humanity and heritage. And if we can be honest and at least acknowledge this, that is the place to start.
Kristen L. Pope: Thank you, Gloria. Thank you so much. I’m so grateful that we are recording this because we must go back through this and call out those action points and really commit those, really commit those to our culture and to our behavior going forward.
So we have now come to the end of our panel conversation and we want to take a few attendee questions. The first attendee question we have, and this is, I’m posing this to anyone who wants to take it, and we’ll hear from just one person per question so that we can keep it moving and try to capture as many as possible.
Whomever wants to take these, please feel free. Our question is:
What actions do white folks need to prioritize to dismantle racism and white supremacy in our communities, in our day-to-day lives?
Alexis Griffith-Waye: One of the things that I will say is that we often look at this as these huge, enormous tasks, and they are. But what I would encourage everyone to do is just take a moment and look at your lives and try to really take the time to assess where you are and what can you do. You might be able to change things in your community. It could be in your work environment. It can be amongst your friends and family. What can anyone do? There are a lot of different things that you can do as an individual.
You might be a person, for example, in an organization where you are in a leadership role. You can start the conversation about how to de-bias the policies within your own organization. Because once one organization does it, and we hear how productive it’s been and how successful it’s been, how that particular organization is growing by leaps and bounds, whether it’s in innovation or in retention, or all the other important areas that we measure, then it is becoming more incentive for others to do the same.
But it can start with just one person regardless of what your racial makeup might happen to be, or as I love what James says, the hybridness of us all. So that’s what I would put forth. But it’s a big question. Big question.
Kristen L. Pope: Thank you, Alexis. Our next question, and I want to note that these questions were previously submitted by the folks who are here, by the people who are attending.
What are best practices for how our communities can ensure equal treatment for everyone without bias?
Sherri Ann Charleston: You know, I think that it begins—there are multiple levels to it. I think the first level is to really start to think about our policies and procedures and to understand the legacy of systemic racism and bias in this country and understand that it can permeate the policies and procedures that we have in place, even when we’re unaware of it.
This isn’t about individual culpability. This is often thinking about ways that some things that we do remove equity from the equation for many members of our community. And so I will just say, I think the only way that we know that the policies and procedures that we have in place are effective is when we’re adequately measuring the impact of those policies and procedures and trying to determine whether they have a discriminatory impact on some members of our community, and identifying those differential impacts. Then we make decisions about how to do things differently.
And so it’s really a coordinated approach between making sure that we have—we know that the law is really the floor. It’s the beginning of the work that we do. The ceiling is set by us. So you know, there is a mix between setting us up on a path to success and then partnering with folks, like the great folks on this panel, to do some really deep thinking about where the problems are and identifying strategic solutions that really allow us to work effectively towards progress.
Kristen L. Pope: Thank you, Sherri. And I truly believe—and I see it in the chat. I see it in the comments. This conversation is opening up so much and it is moving this forward. Our next question:
Why do you feel it’s taken this long for Juneteenth to become recognized outside of Texas? And what can we do to ensure that it and other events in Black history don’t get erased?
Gloria Ayee: Several states have observed Juneteenth by making it a holiday and a paid holiday, as I mentioned earlier. Actually, 47 states and the District of Columbia actually have recognized Juneteenth. Some states made it a paid holiday, most did not.
I would argue that in terms of why this moment is the time when we’re seeing federal legislation getting passed to make this a federal holiday is many factors. This is not the first time the bill was put before Congress, but of course, with this moment of racial reckoning and the events of 2020, we’re seeing more bipartisan approval of sort of efforts to achieve some sort of racial reconciliation in some aspects.
Of course, at the same time we are seeing measures to suppress voting rights and prevent the teaching of history in a way that really speaks to the complexity of race in the United States. But as a symbolic gesture, that’s sort of what the moment has called for and why this is the time that we’re seeing the legislation being passed, so that’s one reason.
Kristen L. Pope: Thank you, Gloria. A couple more questions and then we will bring this amazing conversation to a close. Our next question is:
What are the biggest challenges we still face in our society related to racial justice, and how can we help our children to understand, respect, and aim for a more equitable society?
Alexis Griffith-Waye: Oh this is one of my favorite questions of all time. I love this question because I think this is relevant, regardless of topic. So this is an open discussion. No, I am not getting ready to share something from scholarly research. Instead, I’m going to share something from personal research as a parent.
One of the things that I came to believe is that when a child is born, their sole goal is to survive. That’s why I think they’re so me, me, me, me, me. But what they don’t seem to—just naturally as humans, we come to this planet with is an understanding and appreciation of empathy.
And so as a parent I made it my mission to teach my children empathy from the earliest moments possible. Because I really do believe that when we can see ourselves in someone else’s shoes, really, and I don’t—I mean the hard shoes, the shoes of a slave person, which wouldn’t have been a shoe, we know it would have been a bare foot.
When you can find that place within yourself to touch that, it is hard to look at someone else in a harsh critical manner. Doesn’t mean we can’t get to it, but we can. But I would say it starts with us with as parents when our children are really young, helping them to really develop that sense of empathy.
I’m going to stop there because I know my parents probably have really other wonderful things and I’m sure the greater audience would want to hear from them, as well.
Kristen L. Pope: I do want– well, first of all, Alexis, thank you. And there’s so much to be learned from our personal experience, walking in the shoes of having to be a parent and endow empathy into another human being from a very young age. In the essence of time, we have one more question that we are going to take:
How can parents push school administrators and educators to include Juneteenth in their curriculum and foster meaningful conversations about this day and its meaning to young people?
Sherri Ann Charleston: I will say that we have many colleagues in the Harvard Graduate School of Education who work quite closely with school administrators. And I think one of the things that I’m most proud of as an institution is that we are building a cadre of educator activists who are helping to think about how to advance questions around curricula in schools more broadly.
And so I would say that one strategy is to think about connecting with people who are also advocating to do this work. And as parents, you can have a lot of power. And I think making that connection between the power of parent organizations and our institutions is one way to really target this.
Alexis Griffith-Waye: Get on the PTA in your schools. Whatever they happen to call it, that’s what they called it back in Illinois. Sherri was spot-on. Parents have power. If you want a change in your school, you can make that happen. But you have to get involved.
Kristen L. Pope: And with that, I think that sums up our call to action just all the way around– get involved. Get involved, period, in every aspect and at every layer. Thank you so much to everyone who submitted a question. We hate that we could not get to them all.
But to help, we have put together a resource guide that will point you to more information and material to learn about Juneteenth. On behalf of all of DCE, to each of our panelists, Dr. Gloria Ayee, Dr. Sherri Ann Charleston, James Herron, and Alexis Griffith-Waye, we thank you, and Dean Shirley Greene.
Thank you all for contributing your time, your understanding, and your education, your knowledge, your experience to this conversation about Juneteenth. Thank you to all of our attendees who are here. We hope that this enlightened you.
I’d also like to thank my colleagues, Rebecca Bakken and Chrystal Holland for all of their hard work in putting this event together. To everyone, enjoy the rest of your day. May your Juneteenth celebrations be peaceful, reflective, and safe. Thank you.
Resources to learn more about Juneteenth
- Annette Gordon-Reed: Her new book, ‘On Juneteenth,’ explores the complexities of the past and how we think of them: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/05/annette-gordon-reed-discusses-her-new-book-on-juneteenth/
- Black Owned Bookstores in the United States: https://aalbc.com/bookstores/list.php
- Harvard Gazette Article: Juneteenth in a time of reckoning: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/06/harvard-community-shares-memories-plans-hopes-for-juneteenth/
- National Museum of African American History and Culture: The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth: https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/historical-legacy-juneteenth
- Fields, K., & Fields, Barbara Jeanne. (2012). Racecraft : The soul of inequality in American life. London ; New York: Verso.
- Waters, M. (2001). Black identities : West Indian immigrant dreams and American realities (1st Harvard University Press pbk. ed.). New York : Cambridge, Mass.: Russell Sage Foundation ; Harvard University Press.