Every year — draped in stars and stripes — the majority of America celebrates July 4 as Independence Day. But what is the Fourth of July to the enslaved Black American? This was the question posed by Frederick Douglass during his poignant keynote address before the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society on July 5, 1852. Douglass, like many present-day Black Americans, challenged the notion that “independence” could exist in a country where Black folks still experienced staggering inequality and acute injustice.
“This Fourth July is yours, not mine.”
Centuries later, not much has changed. And it’s for this reason many Black communities celebrate Independence Day on June 19, better known as Juneteenth or Emancipation Day. Juneteeth — “June” plus “nineteenth” — marks the day more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in Texas were made aware of President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation more than two years earlier on January 1, 1863.
But because many enslavers chose to maintain the labor force on farms and plantations, it wasn’t until June 19, 1865 — after the Confederate Army commander General Robert E. Lee resigned and Union General Gordon Granger took command of the District of Texas — that the enslaved learned their independence was actually granted. Granger put forth action to see Lincoln’s order through, thus birthing the day that’s become symbolic of liberation for Black Americans. Although it’s not celebrated as a national federal holiday, Black people have and will always consider the annual event as a moment to reclaim Black joy.
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.
General Order No. 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865
Finding liberation by reclaiming Black joy feels especially important in this moment. But what does it even mean to be Black and free in America right now? Although slavery officially ended in 1865, its ghosts perpetually haunt our society through the mistreatment and modern-day lynching of Black bodies. This year, we’ve watched COVID-19 take a devastating toll on people around the world, and on Black Americans especially. All this while witnessing the continued murder of our Black brothers and sisters whose names are shouted in the streets amid calls for justice: Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Reed, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Riah Milton, Dominique Fells, Oluwatoyin Salau — among way too many others.
Black people are “free,” and we’re still being gunned down by police on the streets and in our homes. Black people are “free,” and thousands of our women and girls are missing. Black people are “free,” but we’re still trying to convince the world that all Black lives — queer, trans and disabled included — matter. If you are Black in America, you may be “free,” but your “freedom” is illusive.
It’s also a tough time to be Black in media. According to the 2019 ASNE Newsroom Diversity Survey, people of color make up 21.9 percent of salaried newsroom workers, while just 18.8 percent are newsroom managers at both print/digital and online-only publications. That reality becomes a heavy burden to carry during times of civil unrest in the Black community, when we’re often looked toward to lead while simultaneously trying to grieve. It becomes especially difficult when you find yourself within a company that strives for values that haven’t always been reflected in its practices. So what does it mean to be Black and free in the newsroom?
For us at R29Unbothered, being Black and free means controlling our narrative. That’s why — with the help of our amazing colleagues across VICE Media and a fantastic team of talented Black writers — it was important for us to highlight our experiences, our way. We’ve been Black and we’re always gonna be Black. So this Juneteenth, we’re celebrating ourselves — just as we always have.
VICE Media Group is celebrating Juneteenth, the day all enslaved Black Americans were emancipated in the U.S., by highlighting stories important to the diaspora across VICE, i-D, Garage, and Refinery 29. Tune in to VICE TV for a full day of television honoring Black voices.
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