The holiday is about more than free food and family-friendly events. It’s a time of reflection. I was first called the N-word at a sleepover when I was nine years old. At that moment I knew the color of my skin would determine how I would be treated for the rest of my life. The following year I learned about slavery in school. In my history book, the few chapters about Black people were about suffering. I read about the origins of slavery and wondered why Black history had been limited to slavery, reconstruction, and the civil rights movement. I yearned to learn about positive moments in Black history. I wondered why my people had not received any land or compensation after being enslaved. Few people know just how many Africans were forced into slavery.
By 1865, 12.5 million African people had been brought to the Americas. My family is fortunate enough to be able to trace one ancestor back to Africa. His name was James Parker, though he was stripped of his real name. There are no documents where it is listed. Less than 100 years ago, my grandmother picked peaches and cotton instead of going to high school. My grandfather helped a white family drive to California to leave rural Arkansas and seek a life of opportunity without fear of lynching. Still, my family has not received reparations for hundreds of years of free labor.
When I learned about slavery, it was painful to know that my family had not received reparations. I felt like history books minimized the Black experience to the trials and tribulations of those who had been enslaved. I was never taught about Juneteenth in school. I never learned that on June 19, 1865, the news that slaves had been freed reached Galveston, Texas. Instead, my class watched the acclaimed series Roots, and my classmates mocked the protagonist’s accent as he was voraciously whipped. My perception of slavery stemmed from film and television—content that rarely showed happy Black people. Juneteenth has made Black joy more visible. Food trucks, festivals, and finger painting are just a few activities taking place at Juneteenth celebrations, but this holiday is much more than a social event. Juneteenth is a reminder that Black lives matter—not just during Black History Month or on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Black lives matter every day.
Black people deserve to be seen and heard all year round. We have fought for independence on this soil going back to the American Revolution. Juneteenth represents acknowledgment of that independence—it recognizes all of us as Americans. I deserve to celebrate myself and my culture outside of designated days. I commemorate Juneteenth for my ancestors who spent their days working tirelessly. Every Juneteenth I think about the prospect of reparations. I feel a sense of hope when I read that the state of California is considering reparations for descendants of slaves. Last year the Sierra Club called for reparations too. Black Lives Matter LA cofounder Dr. Melina Abdullah believes Black people have the right to reparations she told me:
“Black people are owed reparations because the wealth that rightfully belongs to us, what should have been the earnings of our great-grandparents, has been stolen,”
Stolen language. Stolen land. Stolen lives. Black history has been melted down to what has been taken from us rather than how we have survived. Although I have not received reparations, I will celebrate Juneteenth with pride. As Juneteenth becomes more mainstream, it does become hard to watch those same people who called me racist names as a child head out to Juneteenth parades and bar crawls. I want them to acknowledge the significance of Juneteenth outside of drinking alcohol and eating soul food. I want them to understand the fear my grandparents felt while living in the South during a tumultuous time. I wish I could tell them about my family friend Dr. Terrence Roberts, who was one of the Little Rock Nine, the first group of Black children to attend school alongside white children. I wish they could understand what it feels like to be named after a plantation owner with no knowledge of your real last name. I will head onto Instagram and see photos of friends at festivals enjoying food and live music. I know deep down that Juneteenth means much more than a day of fun-filled activities. Juneteenth serves as a reminder of the land and resources that were stolen from my people. But mostly, Juneteenth reminds me of why I am proud to be Black. Even if I never receive reparations, I will always be proud, and that is something no one can take from me.
We Need Reparations, Not Just Representation
State governments around the country began adopting Juneteenth as a holiday shortly after the high-profile police killing of George Floyd, in May 2020. And while Congress is prone to move at a glacial pace, it too acted swiftly to pass a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday.
America could use a day of observance, to acknowledge the toil of our ancestors and the day some became aware of their freedom from slavery. Although many Black people freed themselves before June 19, 1865, by escaping plantations or joining the Union army to liberate each other, a designated day to commemorate our freedom is certainly worthwhile.
JUNETEENTH SHOULD SERVE AS A REMINDER THAT REPARATIONS ARE A DEBT OWED TO OUR COMMUNITY FOR CENTURIES OF RACIST U.S. POLICIES.
But we have to move beyond a symbolic acknowledgment of our historical pain. Juneteenth should also be a time to fight for the debt owed due to centuries of legally mandated servitude and the decades since, during which government policies have deliberately kept Black Americans from ever catching up. The economic loss for millions of Black families wasn’t just a symbolic one that can be repaid with holidays, plaques or statues. Trillions of dollars of Black wealth have been wiped out while government officials advanced wealth for White households.
“We have to move beyond a symbolic acknowledgment of our historical pain. Juneteenth should also be a time to fight for the debt owed from legally mandated servitude.”
Before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation (which only freed enslaved people in some states, while allowing slavery to continue in others), he signed the Homestead Act of 1862, to give away land that helped mostly White people expand and settle westward. While Black families weren’t legally excluded by the Act, only a fraction were able to benefit from it. As historian Keri Leigh Merritt notes, more than 270 million acres of land were given almost exclusively to White households, including to immigrants.
Today, nearly a quarter of U.S. families are descended from the recipients of these land grants. Government policy has continued to widen the racial wealth gap—through housing laws in the New Deal era, discriminatory wage scales or miscarriages of the criminal legal system, which deprive Black households of reliable breadwinners. Duke University economist and scholar William “Sandy” Darity, Ph.D., calculates that reducing the gap now will require granting individual Black households assets of about $250,000 each—which would amount to $10 trillion to $12 trillion paid by the U.S. government.
As scholars have made clear, we can’t educate our way out of this problem, especially when indebtedness seems to be the inescapable cost of higher education. As the 2018 report
“What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap.
“On average, a Black household with a college-
educated head has less wealth than a White family whose head did not even obtain a high school diploma.”
We can’t close it by mere homeownership or entrepreneurship, either. According to the same study, “Among households that own a home, White households have nearly $140,000 more in net worth than Black households.” Add to that the fact that large-scale entrepreneurship tends to expand wealth among those who are already in the upper class.
While such measures may help some Black people, they are unlikely to lift the masses of us into wealth equality. That is why this year, for Juneteenth, we should continue to demand more than symbolic gestures of our emancipation. Without a systemic investment in Black households, we may never truly be free.