This Juneteenth 600,000 Americans aren’t here to celebrate it; the precise number of whom are Black–we may never know. Some 150-years apart, the backdrops of the COVID-19 pandemic and Juneteenth have more in common than any of us should be comfortable with.
Juneteenth is the oldest national holiday commemorating slavery’s end. It’s the real independence day to me–the one Black America has observed for more than 150 years in the shadows of July 4th, America’s self-appointed and selective day of ‘freedom’.
On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued The Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order declaring all slaves held in rebellious (aka Confederate) states, freed. But the executive order wouldn’t take effect until January 1, 1863, and it would take an astonishing 30-months from then until Lincoln’s decree would reach slaves in the confederate state of Texas. On June 19, 1865, they too finally received word of their official(-ish) freedom from slavery. The celebration that ensued was coined Juneteenth and first declared an official state holiday by the Texas legislature in 1980 (yes, that would be the same Texas legislature currently trying to ban critical race theory from schools… #icant).
Although the official news of the declaration took over two-years to arrive, I would contend that the slaves in Texas heard rumblings of their Emancipation long before the official word made it to them. What then kept them from acting on this information for more than 900 days? Ironically, the desire to live to actually see their freedom may have been the very thing that kept them from acting on the legislation that technically freed them a whole two years prior–or what modern psychology has now coined: delayed gratification.
To be Black in America is to recognize that racism follows us like a shadow on a sunny day; no matter where we go, it’s there. In order to survive, we’ve had no choice but to figure out how to carefully and conscientiously navigate society. For us, resisting the temptation of immediate satisfaction (like publicly calling out a co-worker on a racial microaggression) in exchange for long-term gratification (like keeping your job), has become as second nature as breathing. Let me make it crystal clear though: this isn’t a passive trait, and Black people aren’t a passive people. A secret to our survival has been wrapped around mastering this as the core of our resistance to: slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, driving while Black, shopping while Black, working while Black, matriculating while Black, house-hunting while Black and more. To conceive of it any other way, is rooted in (white) privilege.
Today, more than 100+ years since the first Juneteenth, Black people find themselves in the metaphorical mirror of those awaiting word of freedom in 1865. While America has seemingly declared the COVID pandemic over, Black America continues to watch and wait when the proclaimed emancipation from an infectious disease that ravaged our community most, will actually arrive for us.
Black people continue to disproportionately contract and die from COVID. Because of systematic racism, Black & Brown people continue to face social inequities that increase the potential for exposure to COVID, like: multigenerational households in formerly redlined neighborhoods that make social distancing practically impossible, disproportionate positioning in jobs that don’t provide the privilege of working from home, and economic oppression that creates a reliance on high-risk activities like taking public transportation. While the COVID vaccine is available, ongoing challenges with accessing the vaccine and a rightful lack of trust and confidence in the healthcare system, continue to result in stark inequities and under-vaccination among Black people.
In spite of the bleak backdrop of this reality in the Black community, the Center for Disease Control recently released new guidelines that relinquish vaccinated people from wearing masks altogether— signaling to the 23 states that quickly amended their guidelines on mask-wearing and the country as a whole, that COVID is over.
But, it isn’t. Amid a widespread societal shift towards embracing a return to life, America does so by purposefully centering the stability and safety of the majority, while actively suppressing the continued suffering and loss of Black lives.
Because of the many ways Black people have and continue to be betrayed by social systems, many of us aren’t convinced that America’s alleged emancipation from COVID is true. Like the events that led to Juneteenth, the present moment illustrates once again the way we’re forced to contend with whether the message for the masses, applies to us too. Honestly, it doesn’t. If we are to make it, we must resist the temptation of immediate satisfaction (like no longer wearing masks in public), for long-term gratification (like staying alive amid a deadly pandemic).
This Juneteenth, what if–instead of just performative acts of commemoration, like finally declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday–America took substantial actions to recognize and end the cycle of relegating Black people to an existence mired by delayed gratification? A true liberation and emancipation. We can and should do so. And, we can start with our response to COVID.
Our public health and healthcare leaders can start by embracing health equity, and rejecting a mentality that centers white stability– prioritizing the stability of white people, over the social vulnerability of Black and Brown people. Public health organizations can center the most marginalized in COVID guidance, recognizing for example that encouraging unmasking while safe for some, still places the under-resourced at increased risk of contracting Covid. Legislators and policymakers should prioritize COVID recovery efforts in Black communities by moving beyond the lip service of programs and initiatives that embrace equity in theory, to moving money and resources directly into the hands and pockets of the people in the community who need it most.
The reality is, COVID isn’t over for all of us, until it’s over for Black America first. To truly commemorate Juneteenth, don’t repeat it.