As children, we learn that the day the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, all enslaved people were freed. I remember imagining everyone packing up and leaving their plantations, walking towards a future of new opportunities. In my naïve mind, I believed that if slavery had been declared over, everyone must have just followed the new rules.
The harsh reality was that people were kept enslaved much longer than that. Juneteenth marks the day that General Gordon Granger announced to 250,000 enslaved people that they were free, even though the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed much earlier. The laws simply had not been upheld.
I learned African-American history at school in three stages: the time we were slaves, the time we were freed, and then the time that Martin Luther King Jr. ended racism with three words- “I have a dream.” That little picture my teachers used to have in their classrooms of a white child and a Black child holding hands in unity had me all the way convinced that racism was over. I learned that MLK was assassinated in an isolated incident by a crazy man who opposed his ideas of equality, not that he was one of the most hated men in America.
Though I grew up in a white town, I remember most of my experiences among white children being positive. Aside from microaggressions like people asking to touch my hair, and growing up wishing to be white, I thought I was fortunate enough to never actually experience blatant discrimination. Looking back, I realized I had just pushed most of it to the back of my mind- the time when another student repeatedly said the N-word around me, the time my sister and I were told our skin reminded him of “turds.” “Subtle” Northeastern racism is still racism.
My parents were the ones who taught me about racism and my history. And even they didn’t know everything, because they didn’t learn it either. I can honestly say that Black Twitter has taught me more about my history than school ever had- that’s where I heard of Juneteenth for the first time. Non-black children only learn the glossed over version they are taught in school, and that is a major problem within our education system. This applies to the history of other marginalized groups as well.
The lack of education on issues relating to race given to children is the reason people tell black people to “get over slavery”– as if the end of slavery meant we were completely treated fairly. I wish my classmates had been taught about sharecropping, which kept black families locked in debt for years, or the burning of Black Wall Street, which had been a prosperous community of Black Americans during the early 20th century.
Nevertheless, we are older now. Not being taught it in school is not an excuse to remain ignorant. Non-black people’s responsibility to educate themselves on the history of African-Americans and the discrimination we’ve faced falls on them only- not on black people.
Yes, Juneteenth is being acknowledged nationwide this year, but for so many years it wasn’t. This sudden interest in black people feels disrespectful because it only highlights how many years black history has been ignored. From the band Lady Antebellum realizing that their name is associated with slavery to Quaker Oats discontinuing the Aunt Jemima brand because of its basis in the racist “Mammy” stereotype, companies are finally taking note of what Black people had been telling them for years. I’d like to believe it’s because they care, but it might well be a PR stunt.
Black Lives Matter today, but they mattered from the first moment my ancestors set foot on this land in 1619. As we celebrate Juneteenth on June 19th, I encourage everyone to educate themselves on more momentous events in black history that have never been taught to children in schools. Educators should take action and make this day a learning experience for young students, and non-black allies need to be doing the work to educate themselves on the importance of this day. It’s time to retire the U.S. holidays based on discrimination and start honoring new ones.