Holding a sign that reads, "The American system is rigged," a woman amplifies her voice as she implores protesters to rise to the occasion and become activists during a Caribbean-led Black Lives Matter rally at Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza, Sunday, June 14, 2020, in New York. Image via AP Photo/Kathy Willens) America Protests New York
Holding a sign that reads, "The American system is rigged," a woman amplifies her voice as she implores protesters to rise to the occasion and become activists during a Caribbean-led Black Lives Matter rally at Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza, Sunday, June 14, 2020, in New York. Image via AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

A NC-based youth organizer reflects on the pain preceding this year’s Juneteenth celebrations and outlines how to move forward.

155 years ago today, word of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached Galveston, Texas, where the last remaining enslaved African-Americans were finally freed from their oppressors — two years after the Proclamation was issued. That day became Juneteenth, a celebration and commemoration of the end of slavery in America and freedom from oppression. 

June is normally a month of celebration for Black Americans. But the tragic events around the country in recent months, the disproportionate loss of countless Black lives to the coronavirus pandemic, and police violence have instead left many of us unsure. 

How can we celebrate when our community has mourned its way into a new decade? 

In a year full of crisis-fatigue and violence, it’s not easy to draw hope from Juneteenth’s story of delayed liberation. Instead, we are confronted by the memory of another failure by those in power to treat Black people decently — let alone equitably. 

150 years later, and still held back 

After Galveston, many freed people would later make the pilgrimage back to the city to celebrate each year. Yet today, their descendants march in streets around the country, not singing out songs of jubilee but chanting the names of those who have been killed at the hands of white supremacy more than 150 years after we were declared “free.” 

Ahmaud. Breonna. Sean. George. How do we celebrate when the list of names to say and remember grows longer each year?

Amid all of the tragedy, there is a glimmer of hope — a generational sea change in the response to their deaths that could catalyze a nation to take one giant leap forward for the never-achieved ideals that ended slavery all those years ago. The voices in the symphony screaming those names are growing louder— and they are led by young people. 

Change that’s long overdue

In my current role at NextGen North Carolina, a progressive youth vote organization, and throughout my career in civil rights, I’ve been steeped in conversations about empowerment, justice, and accountability. I have been inundated with stories about the negligence and moral deficiency of white people and those in power. 

And yet even within these spaces, it often still feels like Black people are overlooked in the pace and scope of the work for justice and progress. But this month, for one week, I witnessed the white people that work alongside me sit and listen to the painful, heartbroken, often passionate sentiments of Black staff. They both listened and responded, not only in word, but in deed. 

At the same time, I have watched those who worship next to me in church, and those who learned next to me in school, take steps to attune themselves to empathy. I watched more white Americans than I have ever seen both pay, and bring collective attention to the atrocity that is police brutality. I watched a group of white protestors in Louisville, Ky. form a literal human shield around Black protesters to protect them from the police. 

We are mourning, yes, but we are also rising up. It feels as if we, as a generation, have made a decision. 

We have decided that we are the last generation to tolerate white supremacy’s plague on communities of color. It ends with us. 

Kayla B. Cox

And we aren’t just marching for it, or tweeting about it — we’re voting for it. The youngest bloc of voters is also the largest and most diverse, with millennials and Gen Z’ers making up nearly 40% of the electorate nationally. And contrary to popular belief, we vote at the same rate as our older counterparts when we are registered and motivated. We are not tomorrow’s leaders anymore. We are the ones leading this nation toward a new reality right now. 

So, why do we celebrate? This year on Juneteenth, I celebrate the embracement of genuine allyship by those who have formerly thought of it as division. I celebrate what feels like a moment of fresh grace for the work of advocacy and freedom. I celebrate, because indeed, I have to. Anger, even righteous, can only take you so far. Mourning, though necessary, can only last so long. Practicality must be coupled with faith. 

Perhaps this year, we find it hard to draw hope from a story of delayed liberation. But if we can, let’s draw hope from a story in progress, of shared burden. 

This Juneteenth, as we wade through lamentation and grief, as we say names to honor, as we scream for justice and empathy, let us find a modicum of energy to celebrate our delayed, but surely imminent, freedom.