Reflections on freedom for Juneteenth, by Robin Stone

6/15/2023, 6 p.m.
The official recognition of the day the last enslaved people in the United States learned of their freedom, known as ...
Sam Collins III, left, and others celebrate at the Juneteenth historical marker on June 17, 2021, in Galveston, Texas, after President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law. Communities all over the country will be marking Juneteenth, the day that enslaved Black Americans learned they were free. Yet, the U.S. government was slow to embrace the holiday. Photo by Associated Press

The official recognition of the day the last enslaved people in the United States learned of their freedom, known as Juneteenth, was a long time coming. It wasn’t until 2021 — nearly 160 years after slavery ended — that the president signed a proclamation making Juneteenth a federal holiday. The holiday itself shows how freedom delayed can be freedom denied: It took two years for the last enslaved people in Texas to get the word they had been emancipated.

Some African-Americans celebrate freedom twice — Juneteenth and July Fourth — while some have embraced the new federal holiday and released the older one. One argument: Black people were still enslaved at the time of the country’s founding, and today the holiday reminds us that America’s promise is still unkept.

For some of us, even our relationship with Juneteenth is complicated: The official recognition came on the heels of the police murder of George Floyd. That could be interpreted as a hasty response to the mass movement inspired by Floyd’s tragic death while still not addressing the need to police violence against Black people. And unfortunately, in some instances, Juneteenth already has been co-opted and commercialized, reducing the significance of the day to a slogan on a T-shirt or soda can.

Yet Juneteenth is still an important way to acknowledge our history. This year, the holiday falls at a time when the very freedom to learn Black history is under attack. Books featuring Black protagonists or written by Black authors are being banned, Black history courses dropped, and nascent efforts toward diversity, equity and inclusion are being gutted or eliminated.

Despite the holiday, we continue to be reminded that Black bodies are not free. As Black women, our freedom to have a child or to not have a child is under threat, and we are disproportionate victims of human trafficking. As a community, our freedom to vote for our political leaders and issues that matter to us is being eroded in state after state.

Why freedom matters:

We need a sense of bodily freedom to move about the world and feel safe. We need personal and political freedom to experience agency and make choices in our lives. With these liberties, we can have a voice, set goals, and take responsibility for our futures.

Without these basic freedoms, we are at risk and can suffer from mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. Structural racism is a well-established source of trauma for African Americans.

Ongoing racial trauma can harm our mental health and well-being, leading to avoidance, distrust, chronic stress, physical symptoms, and illness.

At this moment, let’s use Juneteenth as a reminder to reflect on and reclaim our freedoms. If you can, take the day off from work. Whether you’re planning to celebrate with a family gathering, community event or quietly at home, consider these questions for affirming the past and embracing the idea of freedom:

What more can I learn?

If you’re like a lot of African-Americans, particularly in the North, you may not have even heard of Juneteenth until recent years. The National Museum of African American History and Culture offers an overview of Juneteenth as well as a summer reading list, resources to share with children, and ways to mark the holiday on social media. Find out what local libraries and museums in your community are offering in the days leading up to and including Juneteenth.

What more can I do?

The struggle for freedom is on many fronts — economic, educational, health, criminal justice, and more. What issue do you feel compelled to do something about? See if there

is a committee within your faith community, sorority, fraternity or other organization where you can lend your time and talents. The NAACP outlines a list of key issues and ways to make your voice heard.

What can I change?

Take a moment to watch this video (https://youtube/NBe5qbnkqoM) of the descendants of abolitionist Frederick Douglass reading his famous “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech. You can also read the full text (teachingamericanhistory. org).Then grab your laptop or a notebook and take 5 to 10 minutes to respond to the following writing prompts:

In what area of my life could I use more freedom?

What makes this so important to me is .

Once you’re done, take several minutes to reflect on what you wrote and consider how you can turn your thoughts into reality.

Juneteenth is more than a holiday – it’s an opportunity to renew our personal and collective commitment to the full realization of freedom for ourselves, our families and our communities.

Robin D. Stone, LMHC, is the founder and clinical director of Muse & Grace Mental Health Counseling in New York. As a psychotherapist and coach, Ms. Stone helps couples and individuals overcome challenges and reach their life goals by engaging the arts and other modalities to move through trauma, grief, loss and change. Ms. Stone is author of the book “No Secrets, No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal from Sexual Abuse” and is co-authoring a book on Black women and resilience.

Learn more at https://www.musegrace.com/ or robinstone.com.