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Remembering and Honoring Juneteenth
June 16, 2021 by Jarvis Watson
A photograph of a digital Juneteenth display projected on a wall and a bowl-shaped candle holder.

Carve Capture, a collective comprising Latoya Flowers (MFA 2012 Social Documentary Film) and Warren Rudd, created this projection-mapping installation for Juneteenth 2020. For more information on the work, click here; to read a 2020 Visual Arts Journal on Flowers, click here. Courtesy Latoya Flowers.

Credit: Carve Capture
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The past is with them and in them.
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Ralph Ellison

Saturday, June 19, marks the anniversary of what we know as Juneteenth. According to the Smithsonian, in 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, and over 250,000 enslaved Africans were declared free by the executive decree known as General Order No. 3. Today, Juneteenth celebrations take place largely in the form of regional parades, programs, catered events and family/community reunions. In 2020, Juneteenth was established as a holiday in New York State, a major step in acknowledging the significance of the historical legacy of African Americans’ struggle for equality.

Looking back on my personal history, I sadly have trouble remembering in-depth conversations on the cultural legacy of Juneteenth. Compared to Kwanzaa or Watch Night Church Services on New Year’s Eve, Juneteenth was not celebrated with the same energy or emphasis. For some people I know, there was a certain level of shame and pain associated with remembering horrific memories of the impact of slavery. These and other narratives, such as the massacres in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and in Rosewood, Florida, are parts of the Black/African American experience that are not readily shared nor within our history books. 

An illustration of five people kneeling in a row and wearing clothes featuring the pattern of the American flag.

Louisa Bertman (MFA 2015 Visual Narrative), #TakeAKnee, for ESPN’s The Undefeated, 2018. Courtesy the artist. For more information, visit louisabertman.com.

Credit: Louisa Bertman

It is important to reclaim these narratives with a new sense of pride and a sustained fight for justice and equality. Through my research, I discovered some texts and articles that highlighted various aspects of Juneteenth’s historical legacy. In an essay on Ralph Ellison’s novel Juneteenth, Loretta Johnson, a professor of English at Lewis & Clark College, writes, “Ellison’s theme of history throughout emphasizes the necessity of telling one’s story, in remembering the past, so that history, the history of injustice, will never repeat itself.” As we become more aware of the true past in America, it is important to gain ownership and develop authentic narratives that come from a strength-based perspective. In The New York Times last year, writer Brianna Holt emphasized that “Juneteenth is a reminder that our freedom was fought for and not just handed over to us.” 

For artists, I believe that there is an obligation to be authentic historians and storytellers. Houston artist Reginald C. Adams created a historical mural that combines the pain of slavery with the triumph of freedom. Adams and fellow artists added in images of Black/African American abolitionists, soldiers, the signing of the order that resulted in the freedom of enslaved Black Texans, as well as a navigator who landed on the shores of Texas in 1582—the region’s earliest known nonnative enslaved person. According to Adams, the work “sprinkles the hard bitter truth with sugar. The sugar is the beauty and energy of the mural, while the bitter truth is that for two and a half years, people were held in slavery against a federal declaration.”

As we continue to address issues of inequality and inequity, we must be intentional about investing time and energy in celebrating the triumphs that we have overcome. Juneteenth is a reminder of the pain we had to endure through slavery, as well as the collective approach toward gaining freedom by reclaiming our rights, our voice, our identity and our stories.

There are a number of events commemorating Juneteenth in New York City this year, from theater performances to readings to film screenings; see The New York Times and Time Out New York for ways to celebrate and honor the anniversary.