This week, we want to highlight a holiday long overdue for national recognition — Juneteenth, the oldest known annual celebration honoring the end of slavery in the United States.
Our team will be observing June 19 as a staff holiday this year and going forward. In honor of the day, we spoke with three Black creatives and teachers in the Skillshare community — Yasmine Cheyenne, Vashti Harrison, and Justin Bridges — to learn more about what Juneteenth means to them, and how to keep taking action in the fight for racial justice.
Juneteenth marks June 19, 1865, the day when news of emancipation finally reached the last group of enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas. The news came late — nearly two and a half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation — and even then not all enslaved people were instantly freed nor able to leave without fear of violence. And yet, the law was clear: unlike the Independence Day celebrated on July 4 that acknowledged freedom for white Americans, June 19 would mark the date that all people in the United States would be legally free.
Like so much of Black history, many of the day’s details remain unknown, but Juneteenth has remained a symbol in the ongoing struggle for racial equality. Despite work by activists like Opal Lee and bills introduced at a federal level, Juneteenth is still not recognized as a federal holiday, and it’s inconsistently taught in school curriculums. And this year, so close to the death of George Floyd and countless more that have sparked national outrage and accelerated the Black Lives Matter movement, there is a renewed necessity to recognize the day and take action in the fight for Black freedom and equality.
On what makes Juneteenth meaningful
YASMINE CHEYENNE, SELF-HEALING ADVOCATE AND EXPERT: For me, Juneteenth is the expression and celebration of Black freedom. I was never taught about Juneteenth in any professional school setting, which speaks volumes. Instead, I learned about Juneteenth from my family and celebrated it with my friends.
Today, as a teacher, writer, and creative Black person, to understand June 19th as the date African Americans in Texas finally learned they were free, especially because many could not read, is a reminder of the immense gratitude that I have for everyone who came before me to fight, and for everyone who’s doing it now. And it’s ongoing: Juneteenth is a celebration of that freedom, but also a reminder of the many freedoms we continue to fight for.
VASHTI HARRISON, ILLUSTRATOR AND AUTHOR: We have to ask ourselves which stories are being told and why. In America, we take pride in our freedom and we celebrate it regularly. Juneteenth is a reminder that even when we celebrate Independence, and even Emancipation, not all of us were free.
JUSTIN BRIDGES, PHOTOGRAPHER: There’s a connection between then and now. For me, Juneteenth has evolved from a sort of secondary Independence Day to a reminder of how long it takes for a Black person to just get a taste of equality. In many ways, the delay in slaves hearing about the Emancipation Proclamation echoes the same sentiment as a wrongful death at the hands of a police officer while our community has to wait, and wait, and wait, for anyone to condemn what’s been done — and even longer for something to be done about it. We as a community of human citizens need to be invested in the call of justice and equality if we want anything to be done on an acceptable and humane timeline.
On how non-Black allies can honor Juneteenth
YASMINE: Being an ally is a life-long commitment to unlearning all the societal behaviors and norms that are inherently oppressive to Black people. And to have an impact, it’s imperative that non-Black people take the time to act on that education, not only by celebrating Black people’s history (like Juneteenth), but also by acting on all of the many issues happening right now.
This education is not so you can become an expert and teach, but so that you can become an active advocate, spotting your blind spots and those of your friends, family, and co-workers. With this education, you can participate in the amplification of Black voices, Black creatives, and Black businesses — and that’s a powerful way to be an ally every day.
VASHTI: I identify with those just learning about Juneteenth. I myself only learned of the day in the last few years. I grew up learning the same history as most people in America, and only through active education on my part (especially while researching my books Little Leaders, Little Dreamers, and Little Legends) did I come to learn just how much gets left out of our history lessons — many things that would have been so exciting and inspiring for me as a young person. I would ask folks to reflect on why stories like Juneteenth, and countless more, are forgotten, neglected, and erased.
JUSTIN: We take so much of daily life in the U.S. for granted, and I think many non-Black allies have a sort of baked-in reliance on the systems and structures that undergird our society. I would ask allies to reflect on things that may seem insignificant in day-to-day life: what does your neighborhood look like when you visit your parents? What are the surroundings like in your local park? Who are the people that serve you coffee or lunch? The neighborhood you moved into, in cities like NYC or LA, what was it like before you moved there for cheaper rent?
We, as a society, can’t afford to just glide through life and say “that’s how the cookie crumbles.” We have to collectively exercise more self-determination than that. Reexamine those commonly-held myths you hold. For non-Black allies, venture to think about how your life might be different if you were raised in a different zip code or had fewer advantages. The reality is that many people think we are victims of our own choices, but often it’s the lack of choice that leaves us so far behind others.
On using creative work and social media for activism
JUSTIN: There are many helpful paths in this tough war of social and racial justice and equality. We need to bring this fight to all fronts: public demonstration, peer pressure, legislation, voting, 1-on-1 and group conversation, and more. There’s invaluable work to be done at a public, collective level.
One thing I’ve noticed, and I’ve seen this in my artistic work and my self-work in therapy, oftentimes proximity and relatability are the best disinfectants for such viral belief systems. Humans crave authenticity and connection. When I’m taking pictures, if I can use my personality to connect with my subject, we typically have a shoot with mutual understanding and enjoy the process of collaborating towards the same end goal. We need to bring that into the social justice movement, and that’s been part of my thinking behind sharing more of my experiences as a Black man.
I think authenticity, relatability, and vulnerability are useful tools in creating connections. When it comes down to it, we can’t solve inequality or inequity through a well-worded text or a thoughtful video recording, but we can create some cracks and let some light into some dark places. The more people can talk to their friends, families, and colleagues, the better off we’ll be.
Editor’s Note: See here for Justin’s recent discussions on race via podcast and IGTV.
On still finding moments for rest and joy
YASMINE: Black people are already unbelievably exhausted over everything that has taken place in just the last few months. We’re constantly having a wound reopened, which brings tough emotions like fear, grief, anger, and sadness, and all while trying to still have our love, laughter, joy, excitement, and freedom to just be. Collective grief and trauma are hard on the body.
I share and teach that rest is a form of activism, and that self-healing is a form of activism because Black joy is important. It’s hard to be joyful when you’re exhausted. Rest allows us to reset, regroup, and release. If we aren’t taking care of ourselves and allowing time for rest, we won’t be able to keep showing up. Activism is a marathon, and I believe that rest and self-healing are inextricably linked to this movement.
Editor’s Note: Click here to download a self-healing resource by Yasmine, created for Black communities with this moment in mind.
On looking towards a better future
VASHTI: It is exciting to experience the national conversation shifting, but I’m wary. In many ways, I worry this feels like an extended Black History Month. I love seeing Black voices uplifted, but I don’t want this to feel like another moment that we can just move past, that we can just separate and otherize from our history.
Going forward, I want to simply normalize Black voices and Black history, so we can begin to see it for what it always has been: part of the fabric of the American story. For me, that means making art that normalizes Black bodies in spaces we rarely have been able to see them in: in children’s books, in fantasies and fairy tales, in animation, and beyond.
Editor’s Note: Find Vashti’s books celebrating Black history, stories, and characters here.
For more on Juneteenth and ways to support the movement for racial justice:
- Read why Juneteenth is more necessary now than ever by The Atlantic
- Browse the Juneteenth reading list curated by Penguin Random House
- Hear why it’s important for Juneteenth to go mainstream on WNYC’s The Takeaway
- Learn about the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans in the New York Times’ 1619 Project
- Organize and participate in a weekend of action with the Movement for Black Lives and Six Nineteen
View Skillshare classes taught by the creatives featured in this article:
We’re grateful to the speakers in this article for sharing their story. Please note that interview answers have been edited for clarity and length.