Juneteenth As A Collective Therapy For The Black Community

·5 min read

Juneteenth since its inception as a holiday continues to evolve and serves as a collective therapy for the Black community, experts and community leaders say.

People pray together during a Juneteenth event
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The attire was formal; men wore trousers, and women wore dresses. This wasn’t their original attire. This was the clothing of their former masters. They traded in their tattered garb that was weaved with threads of enslavement and bondage for the Victorian wardrobe, an expression of their freedom.

A Pan-African flag flies from Black Lives Matter Plaza overlooking the White House on Juneteenth to mark the liberation of slavery in 1865 on June 19, 2020

This act became a ritual associated with Juneteenth.

The 156-year-old holiday marks June 19, 1865, when enslaved people were notified by a military general in Galveston, Texas of their freedom. This decree came two and half years after slavery was declared illegal through the Emancipation Proclamation. The agency of the newly freed Black people made them take their liberty and explore what that meant as they celebrated, feasted, prayed, recited speeches, and reunited with family members they could locate.

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“Juneteenth embodies this idea of therapy; it is therapy for Black people,” Cirecie West-Olatunji said, professor at Xavier University of Louisiana, and director for the Center of Traumatic Stress Research.

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“Juneteenth itself is an act of resistance, an act that counters the racist tyranny in the United States,” West-Olatunji continued. "The deliberate withholding by the slave masters to maintain the labor force on their plantations is an act of tyranny." Some slaveholders relocated to Texas purposely to evade freeing their slaves. Juneteenth became an opportunity to make a statement and shake off the emotional and psychological shackles of slavery.

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Juneteenth provides a space for identity and self-actualization, says Dakari Taylor Watson, the lead for Elementary School Communities in Schools of the Nation's Capital.

A  digital illustration of a Black family sharing food during a Juneteenth celebration

“The Black community is so diverse, [with] sub-communities within larger communities,” he expressed. “If we were able to provide some level of identity recognition of one’s self, I think that we would have a lot more understanding about what we are doing, where we are going, who we need to connect with and what we need to be doing.”

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“It gives Black folks the opportunity to identify with something, so we’re celebrating Black folks' freedom from slavery, albeit we were set free years after. For a lot of Black folks, that is enough is to move the needle on something,” Taylor Watson declared.

a group of Black people march in a juneteenth parade
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The importance is using Juneteenth as a foundation, “a platform to recognize that and then celebrate identity and then to use those conversations to discuss how we can continue to progress,” Taylor Watson continued.

A woman dances

Many of the initial Juneteenth celebrations were outlawed from being held in public spaces, so people migrated. Some celebrations were held in nature by lakes and rivers. The dedication to having the festival prompted Black people to have their own spaces like churches and other property to hold the festivities, according to West-Olatunji.

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“They did it against the will of the mainstream. Juneteenth also represents collective caregiving, self-reliance, and it enhances our collective racial and social identity,” West-Olatunji stated.

protestors hold signs in support of juneteenth and black lives

Juneteenth does a lot for the overall acknowledgment of cultural identity and also prompts conversations around racial trauma and triumphs.

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It provides the opportunity to think about one’s own responsibility and critically think. “To think about transformative action, think about it in the historical and political context and also personal responsibility,” West-Olatunji believes.

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There is the spiritual significance of Juneteenth as well, recognizing the progress that the ancestors made, Taylor Watson explained. “Our ancestors’ freedom looks very different from what our freedom is right now and what we are trying to do and where we are trying to go. I think it is a commemoration and recognition of what our ancestors have done for us, and it is also a call to action,” he said.

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I am because we are, is a phrase from the South African Xhosa speaking people.

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Juneteenth, the holiday that is also during Black Music Month, should be looked at as a self-care and wellness day but with an emphasis on intentional community connection.

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“Wellness is about your spirit, your body, and your mind being in balance,” stated Teresa Solomon of Cultivate the Well, a wellness space. "I really believe we need to be dedicated to all three of those areas."

a group dances in the park during a juneteenth celebration

“We have about three-plus decades of research that connects positive racial-cultural identity development with a lot of positive aspects of being a human being," West-Olatunji added.

"It correlates with social-emotional well-being. We demonstrate less depression, less anxiety, less interpersonal aggression, and conflicts. When we have this idea of kinship support that people are caring for one another and they understand, all of this helps the collective,” Solomon concluded.

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There is an intense amount of physiological and physical warfare that takes place against Black people, which may take the form of the mass shooting in Buffalo targeting Black people, police brutality, or systemic racial oppression that causes long-term turmoil. In the face of these many transgressions, joy must be in high demand to increase the rate of survival.

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“Black folks have enough reason to be crazy in this world,” Taylor Watson conveyed.

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Finding joy in the midst of chronic stress is what some of the recent studies in neuroscience are centered on. The collective value of music and prayer is powerful.

Kimberly Nichole, Nona Hendryx, and Marcelle Lashley perform

“I’m not sure if holding onto that trauma and not reacting in a way that is conducive to you experiencing that type of trauma is healthy. It leans more along the lines of being insane,” Taylor Watson concluded.

“It is because of our ability to spiritually step outside of the horrors and experience the joy of what it means to be human and to experience collective hope that allows us to be here today,” added West-Olatunji.

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“Juneteenth is a good time for healing and forgiving and coming together,” Solomon finished.

Members of Reedy Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church march to celebrate Juneteenth
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Make sure you head here for more of our Juneteenth coverage!