Three people stand next to a plaque commemorating the place where the first documented Africans in Virginia arrived

OPINION: As We Celebrate Juneteenth, We Must Honor Our Past While Fighting for Our Future

by Derrick Wheeler-Smith


Three years ago, I had the privilege to stand on the shores of Point Comfort (today’s Fort Monroe) in Hampton, Virginia, with hundreds of other African Americans to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first landing of enslaved Africans in English North America. Standing at the Ellis Island of African America 400 years ago, I imagined what their perilous landing must’ve been like. What I know for sure is that their presence profoundly impacted the cultural manifest of America’s past, yet their descendants remain subject to socioeconomic and political disparities today.

Photo: Derrick Wheeler-Smith

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, declared freedom for enslaved Black people in Confederate-controlled areas. But executive orders need to be enforced. Texas still strongly resisted the proclamation with little Union presence. The lack of Union troops in many parts of the South could not ensure slaves were freed all at one time. It took two and a half more years before every African American slave was free in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that the war had ended and the enslaved were now free. Hence, Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.

That must’ve been an exhilarating moment filled with laughter and tears of joy, rounded out by ancestral dancing. However, there were no 40 acres, no mule, and no support from the U.S. government to deliver on the promise of “freedom.” How long from that June 19 announcement before someone asked, “Where are we free to go? What are we free to do, and who are we free to be?”

In the United States, we must remember that under slavery, Black lives were considered only a fraction of a human life. The prevailing way of valuing lives assumed that some lives mattered more, were more human, more worthy, and more deserving of life and freedom, where freedom, at minimum, meant the freedom to move and thrive without being subjected to coercive force. But when and where did Black lives ever find freedom from coercive force? One reason the chant “Black Lives Matter” is so important is that it states the obvious, but the obvious has not yet been historically realized.

Black Lives Matter is a statement of outrage and a demand for equality, for the right to live free of constraint. But it’s also a chant that links the history of slavery, debt peonage, segregation, and a prison system geared toward the containment, neutralization, degradation of Black lives, and a police system that increasingly and more often can take away a Black life in a flash, all because some officer perceives a threat.

When WE say BLACK LIVES MATTER and you respond with “All Lives Matter,” YOU’RE misunderstanding the problem, but not because your message is untrue. It is true that all lives matter, but it is equally true that not all lives are understood to matter the same, which is precisely why it is most important to name the lives that have not mattered and are struggling to matter in the way they deserve.

Black people’s freedom didn’t happen at the stroke of the pen from Lincoln or the lone announcement from a Union Major. We have had a terrifyingly dysfunctional relationship since we stepped foot on the shores of Fort Monroe in 1619. And we have yet to deal with this nation’s oldest pandemic, COVID-1619!

Photo: Derrick Wheeler-Smith

Today, I say Happy Juneteenth to all of my ancestors whose strength, resilience, fight, wisdom, and love carry us forward. But I also hold the tension between Black joy and resistance, because symbolism fatigue is real!

A year ago, Quaker Oats announced that its Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup would be completely replaced with a new brand, to remove images critics denounced as racist. Removing the Aunt Jemima branding but keeping the high-fructose corn syrup with brown dye and sodium hexametaphosphate is a solid example of how liberal America loves to make hollow symbolic gestures while keeping in place the system that’s actually killing people. It’s the National Football League choosing “End Racism” decals instead of embracing ideals and actions like standing with players who dared to protest on behalf of those who look like them. We need ideals and actions, not decals and symbolism.

We have passed an anti-Asian hate law, an anti-Jewish hate law, an LGBTQ hate executive order has been signed, but we have no anti-Black hate law, resolution, or executive order. Ten people were murdered in Buffalo, and all we can offer is thoughts and prayers. More symbolism.

And so, today, we hold the tension of commemorating Juneteenth while still demanding that America lives up to its promise. The truth is, Black folks’ freedom is messy because America refuses to have the moral imagination to envision thriving without our bondage. So, we commit to carry the torch of our Ancestors and to hold the beauty of Black joy in one hand and resistance in the other, because our past and future demands that of us.


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Derrick Wheeler-Smith is a native son of the Rainier Valley whose impact as a leader in racial equity and community empowerment in Seattle and King County has spanned more than two decades. Derrick’s bold ideas, courageous voice, and ability to inspire and empower community action has been a tidal force for countless waves of progress in our region.

📸 Featured image by Derrick Wheeler-Smith.

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