• Monday, July 22, 2024
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Juneteenth and the complicated psychology of the black diaspora in America

Juneteenth and the complicated psychology of the black diaspora in America

“Despite their ‘freedom’, they were not allowed to use public spaces for their gatherings, which was why Church premises and waterfronts became favourite venues.”

On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger of the United States Army formally made a proclamation titled General Order Number 3, in Galveston, Texas announcing that the last slaves in the American South, who resided in the state of Texas, were now free men and women.

In Texas, ‘Juneteenth’ was celebrated for the first time in 1866 and commemorated thenceforth with gatherings of black people wearing their best attires and treating themselves to sumptuous soul food. Despite their ‘freedom’, they were not allowed to use public spaces for their gatherings, which was why Church premises and waterfronts became favourite venues. The celebrations eventually spread across the Southern States, and then to the rest of the nation.

Texas recognised the date by law in 1980. By 2008, half of the States in the Union recognised the day in one form or another.

On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law an Act passed by the 117th United States Congress, designating June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day and a legal public holiday across the USA.

The neologism ‘Juneteenth’ is derived from an amalgamation of ‘June’ and ‘Nineteenth’, the month and the day of the commemoration.

For the 2024 celebration, in an election year filled with ominous rumblings in the public space, President Biden issued a Proclamation from the White House, celebrating the achievements of black Americans, and their contributions to the nation.

‘…Juneteenth not only marks the end of America’s original sin of slavery but also the beginning of the work at the heart and soul of our Nation: making the promise of America real for every American…’

The President, who has facilitated the elevation of a good many black people into visible positions in public life, including Kamala Harris the Vice President and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson the first black woman in the Supreme Court, may be forgiven his rhetorical effort to remind the black community that he is their friend, and that they would do well to stick with him. The alternative is the previously unthinkable, but more and more likely possibility, of another Donald Trump Presidency.

Juneteenth 2024 was celebrated a few days ago with special vigour across the nation. Perhaps people are troubled by a sense of impending doom embodied by a scenario in which two old men, unsuitable in different ways, have become the sum total of the choices on the table for the future of America, and black people are caught in the middle. There have been concerts in the White House and in cities from New York City to Milwaukee. Exhibitions have been held in museums and various other locations to celebrate Black History and achievement.

It is not to be assumed that all of America is celebrating, or that all Americans agree with their President in labelling slavery as ‘Original Sin’. Some on the political right wing aver that the experience has been beneficial for black Americans, suggesting they should be grateful for it.

It is not to be assumed that all of the Black Americans themselves view black history with empathy, or wish to be associated with Emancipation or ‘Black Victimology’. Black Rapper and Trump friend Kanye West once described Slavery as ‘A Choice’, implying that the slave was somehow complicit in his own enslavement.

There is no unified perspective of what Slavery and Emancipation, and the labours of the centuries since, have done to the black man in America. Historians, Philosophers, Writers and Poets have tried to depict and shape the black experience in the New World, but it is obvious there is still a certain amount of identity confusion.

Is the Black American an African Abroad, or a unique creation, an ‘expatriate immigrant’ like virtually every other American – white, yellow or brown, permanently transformed into a new, unique American identity through four centuries of experience, and now inextricably locked into the American reality and its powerful civilisation and culture, which dominate the world? The answer is not settled.

On one hand, prominent activists such as musician Stevie Wonder proudly proclaim their African identity and are rushing ‘home’ to obtain citizenship in the African nation of Ghana. Some ordinary Black Americans are spending good money on DNA genealogy tracing, trying to retrace their origins to their tribe and village on the African continent.

On the other hand, many Black American ‘brothers’ have a fraught, sometimes hostile relationship with ‘native’ Africans. A certain strain of resentment comes through, and the overt rationale, where one exists, ranges from ‘You sold us into slavery’ to ‘I’ve been here four hundred years. I’m better than you.’

The journey from Juneteenth and the ‘Original Sin’ to full attainment of the promise of America is by no means done. Despite a growing affluent class in Industry, in Sports, in the Creative Arts, and in Academia, Black America is still on the bottom rung of the educational and socio-economic ladder. Black neighbourhoods have disproportionately high maternal and infant mortality rates. The rub is that recent ‘immigrant Africans’ -such as Nigerians, are making a beeline for the top of that same ladder.

Is the ‘Original Sin’ at an end, or is it buried deep in the psyche of the victim, hobbling his growth and self-actualisation, and manifesting in the one-parent family, the school drop-out rate and drug and crime-infested black neighbourhoods? Would reclaiming an African identity, while remaining deservedly American be a gain for the Black American, or should he repudiate it and cast himself adrift in an alien world, trusting that America will eventually do right by him? Would demanding the payment of Reparations heal the mental wound, or only put a price on unquantifiable mental injury?

What is the way forward for the black man in America, beyond the concerts and soul food of Juneteenth?

Someone somewhere has some hard thinking to do.