Juneteenth: An Overdue Acknowledgment, But Not Enough

By Tashi Copeland
Communications Manager
Tashi Copeland

Juneteenth. The day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. This week, Juneteenth National Independence Day became an official federal holiday.

Can you remember the first time you heard of Juneteenth? I can. I was 20-years-old. For nearly two decades, I, a Millennial Black woman, had never heard of this momentous time of our history.

As a kid, I lived in the town of Edgewood, Indiana. (Honestly, I wouldn’t even call it a town, it’s more of a mid-size neighborhood in Anderson). Black population: 3.7%. The house has been in our family for three generations. Some of my earliest childhood memories include our teenage neighbor writing the n-word in the snow of our yard and the little girl down the street leaving my house because she didn’t want to play with black baby dolls. It was so confusing as a kid to see how people reacted to melanin-rich bodies. So in my four-year-old kid brain, I just knew when I got to school, I would learn the “why” behind it, right?

I was wrong.

Throughout my K-12 experience, I received a minimal amount of education on Black history and the systemic issues of this country. The fact that I even have to say Black history in itself has always been problematic for me, seeing as Black people are embedded in American history. In elementary school, I colored pictures of Harriet Tubman, pulling out my brown crayon next to the nub of a crayon that was peach. Under the picture was a one-word sentence about the Underground Railroad. Nothing more. In middle school, we listened to the “I Have a Dream Speech.” While the teacher would smile out to the class while reciting “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” never did we unpack America defaulting on its promissory note to the Black society (#StillWaiting). By the time I got to high school, I had all advanced placement classes, which you would think would be an elevated exploration of topics.  In A.P. World History there was a paragraph on the middle passage. In A.P. U.S. History I read a water-downed chapter on the Civil Rights Movement. None of that minimal information was ever asked on my placement exams. I didn’t learn of Juneteenth until I took an African-American Studies class—an elective of course—my sophomore year at Purdue.

The current state of education of Black history in our school systems is inadequate. It over-simplifies the Black experience in this country. American history textbooks will mention Jim Crow but not talk about redlining and its effect on housing today. (Cue MLK’s “we cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one”). They’ll mention Rosa Parks but not Claudette Colvin. The books will paint the South out as the only perpetrators of injustice and segregation, while I know my great-grandfather moved into our Indiana home during the night so the neighbors wouldn’t find out a Black family had moved in.

There’s also a lack of understanding of what Black history is. It isn’t all adversity and suffering. It’s also success. And beauty. And innovation. You have grade-school kids knowing Siri will give them directions, but who don’t know Gladys Mae West mapped out the way to GPS. There are folks who are praising the COVID-19 vaccine rollout but don’t know Onesimus, an African man who was enslaved, introduced the concept of inoculation. This country has to come to terms with the fact that Black people existed pre-enslavement and made contributions post-1960s.

There is legislation sweeping our nation, repressing schools’ abilities to teach about systemic racism in this country, through sanctions or suppressions of funds. There’s an outcry in my own backyard—I live in Hamilton County—on diversity, equity and inclusion being a part of the school systems. All this makes my stomach turn. Black people in this country have a history that predates enslavement, but it is one which we may never know as our thievery to this land erased most ties to our past. The very least this country can do to atone for its degradation is to shift on a national level to contextualize an accurate account of the Black experience in the U.S. With this shift in education, students can see how our experience and history relates to today’s issues of police brutality, the criminal legal system and systemic racism. Then follow that up with some actionable change.

So as everyone celebrates Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday, I’ll be honest, I’m not quite satisfied. Juneteenth is but one day in our untold history. I am happy that there is some acknowledgment of our emancipation other than July 4. However, there’s still much work to be done to truly change systems, including our education system.  To paraphrase Malcolm X, you can’t take a knife and drive it nine inches, take it out three, and call that progress. So while I  appreciate the overdue acknowledgment—to be clear—the knife is still here. And we have a ways to go to truly heal the wound.

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