Jameelah Jones: Symbols of justice and freedom aren’t enough (Column)

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In the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History, there’s a Bible. In that Bible is a list of names. As soon as he discovered he was free, and it was LEGAL to read and write, a Black man wrote down the names of everyone in his family he could remember. So they wouldn’t be forgotten.

What a simple, profound exercise of freedom. The freedom to record the names of your family.

I think about that exhibit often, but especially on Juneteenth. I’m reminded of the struggle for freedom from chattel slavery in the United States. I think of how much further we have to go as a country. Mostly, I think about the everyday ways that enslaved Africans and their descendants claimed freedom as their own, and the everyday ways it is still being denied to us.

Beyond a national holiday, the way forward is for allies and accomplices to do all they can to facilitate everyday moments of freedom for African Americans.   

I haven’t spoken much about Juneteenth becoming a national holiday. I could use what my aunt called “ten-dollar words” for my reasoning. But the most honest words are the simplest: because it makes me sad.

As of June 18, 2021, Juneteenth is recognized as a national holiday. But the end of slavery was also a sweeping national declaration, and yet the material conditions of Black people were left largely unimproved, with any attempts to directly repay former slaves and their descendants being met with violent pushback and fierce political opposition. America — white America — has a habit of creating symbols of freedom, without actually providing it.

Juneteenth is a federal holiday, while school districts ban the teaching of race and American history from classrooms. Corporations and individuals made public declarations of their support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. How far have the inclusion plans and investment promises come?

It makes me sad to know that my ancestors worked and suffered for free for centuries, just to be do more free work in the future. Their free labor now gets all Americans a paid day off. Their real, material labor, the suffering and torture of their everyday lives, has been reduced to yet another symbol. Another way for white America to be painfully nonspecific about their plans to go further in the fight for racial justice.

On a systemic level, I worry that Juneteenth will be another day that wraps “American unity” packaging on the horrors of slavery, the struggle for abolition, and the current fight against white supremacy. Most importantly, on an individual level, I worry that white “allies” will think their specific action to support Black people will be to bring a soul food dish to the company potluck or send a “Happy Juneteenth” text to both of their Black friends.

So let me send a clear message with these last few words: Juneteenth is the day that white slave owners in Texas had to be forced to recognize the freedom of the people they had enslaved. White people should take a moment to find themselves in this story. Take it in. Just like the federal government had to come into Southern states and force them to integrate schools, they had to come to Southern states and force them to free enslaved people.

How are you acknowledging a symbol of freedom, but still refusing to aid in the freedom of Black people in your everyday life? How are you relying on symbols to substitute for justice? What are the specific ways you can move beyond a symbol for freedom?

If you don’t have an answer, allow me to provide a good start: We don’t need any more symbols. Hire us. Cut the check. Or leave us alone.

— Jameelah Jones (she/they) is a writer, student, and community builder. She wears bright colored lipstick and watches superhero movies in her spare time. Follow her on Twitter, @sunnydaejones.

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