Juneteenth: What does it mean to be free?
Writer Lola Adesioye reflects on the symbolism of freedom as the world’s reckoning with race hits yet another fever pitch
By Lola Adesioye Above image by Getty Images
When Dr Martin Luther King Jr famously said ‘No one is free until everyone is free’, he was referring to the fight for civil rights during the 1960s. But being a man of history, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d had 19 June 1865 in mind, for nowhere is that phrase more applicable than to the day we now call Juneteenth, also known as African American Emancipation Day.
When federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, on 19 June 1865, they came to tell the 250,000 enslaved Africans there that they had been set free. On that day, those 250,000 people – who had been forced to endure hundreds of years of physical and psychological bondage – found out that they were no longer subject to the indignity of having to perform back-breaking work without pay. And they were no longer under the inhumane subjugation of white slave owners who were in total – often extremely violent – control of their lives, fates, and destinies.
I can only imagine how it felt to hear the first few words of General Order 3: ‘The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.’ I’m sure they were shocked, in disbelief, perhaps bewildered – and then supremely elated.
But imagine how they must have felt to find out that they’d technically already been free since January 1863, two and half years earlier, when President Abraham Lincoln – dead by the time this order reached Texas – had signed the Emancipation Proclamation?
Of course, there was no social media then. No email. No supercomputers with the ability to disseminate information at lightning speed, like we have now. Until 19 June 1865, they couldn’t have known.
So, my question is this: what does it mean to be free? Can you be ‘free’ if you don’t actually know you are free? Are you free if the environment you’re in continues to subjugate and oppress you? How do we ensure that freedom is more than mere lip service?
'One cannot be free until the forces and powers which impinge on that freedom are truly gone'
After ‘freedom’ came Black Codes, laws created to restrict the freedom of the four million Black people in America and to ensure that they were insufficiently paid. Then came Jim Crow, which enforced segregation, keeping Black people from having the same access as white people to housing, education, employment, earnings, and political rights. Those are just a few of the things that took place in order to keep Black people in a condition of oppression. Even today, in 2021, we’re still fighting for freedom from racial, economic and social injustice, police brutality, and other forms of overt and covert racism, prejudice, and discrimination. So, freedom can’t just be about the word ‘free,’ even if it comes from the highest office in the land. It must be more than that.
Black Panther Demonstration, 1969: A protestor raises his fist in defiance at a rally against the incarceration of members of the Black Panthers in New York. Image by Getty Images
Black Lives Matter march, 2020: Protestors stand outside of Trump Tower in Manhattan to demand legislative action on Black equality in the wake of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders. Image by Mark Clennon
For those of us who are committed to making a better world, and dedicated to creating a more inclusive world in which people really are able to enjoy their inalienable rights of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, we have to think about the actual practical application of what we’re fighting for. One cannot be free until the forces and powers which impinge on that freedom are truly gone. One cannot really be free if other people around you are denied that same right, whether at home or abroad.
Juneteenth is hugely important to all Americans, and it’s certainly as important to the nation – in my opinion – as 4 July. On this day, let’s reflect as we celebrate. As the great Nelson Mandela said in his memoir after his release from 27 years of imprisonment: ‘I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.’