Essays

The Fault Lines of Freedom, From Juneteenth to Independence Day

Solidarity gestures are trending but as we move from one “Independence Day” to another, will they be accompanied by structural change?

Crystal Z Campbell, “Juneteenth Celebration on Greenwood (Tulsa, OK)” (2020), (all images courtesy the artist, © Crystal Z Campbell, 2020)

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which lie is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license… There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1852

TULSA, OK –– On Juneteenth, the earth shook to the tune of 4.2 on the Richter scale in Tulsa. In seconds, my Facebook feed was alight with quips of “EARTHQUAKE: DID YOU FEEL THAT?”

Juneteenth historically celebrates the emancipation of enslaved Black people in the United States. Despite President Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the news was delayed. Word that all slaves in the Confederacy were free did not reach Galveston, Texas until June 19, 1865.

On that day in Galveston, General Granger was accompanied by 2,000 federal troops to assist in transitioning enslaved people to emancipation and maintain social order accompanying the decision. Juneteenth is casually referred to as America’s second Independence Day, but the promise of Black emancipation shifted the social, economic, and political dynamics of this country as a whole. During Reconstruction, Black leaders galvanized their communities to build political power by registering Black voters and hosting political campaigns on Juneteenth.

Thomas Nast, “Emancipation of the Negroes – The Past and the Future (from Harper’s Weekly)” (January 24,1863), wood engraving, 14 5/8 × 20 11/16 inches (image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain)

On this most recent Juneteenth in Tulsa, I sprawled across a red tartan blanket in John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park. Overhead, the glistening reflection of Air Force One blazed over me towards the Tulsa International Airport. This may not sound significant.

Allow me to rephrase.

On Juneteenth, the 45th president of the United States used tax dollars to fly over the former site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and host a re-election rally steeped in racist vitriol. This, just merely two weeks after the 99th anniversary of one of the most hushed incidents of racially motivated domestic terrorism in the United States.

This is not normal –– the flight path, the troop of armed National Guards, the metal border-like fence around the federal exclusion zone, the mayor’s enforcement and retraction of a curfew, the civil emergency declaration prior to the rally. Nor is the encampment of downtown Tulsa by clusters of people sitting idly on makeshift folding chairs, clad in jersey blue t-shirts and red hats, with a president’s face flickering on makeshift flags. This rally was not a step towards reconciliation.

Crystal Z Campbell, “Juneteenth Celebration on Greenwood (Tulsa, OK)” (2020), © Crystal Z Campbell, 2020

Before Juneteenth, I sauntered along gentrified sections of downtown Tulsa, not far from the BOK center where number forty-five’s rally would be held. Standing on the sidewalk, I watched a massive Black Lives Matter banner unfurl from the updated brick section of The Brady Theater. The theater is named for Tate Brady — a Klansman. Formerly the convention hall, it was also once a detainee camp where Black residents were rounded up and detained at gunpoint during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

If you venture downtown today, you will not find Brady Street or the Brady Arts District. Parallel to the reimagining of monuments, spaces, and problematic histories, stirred and reinvigorated by recent uprisings, the Brady Arts District recently became the Tulsa Arts District. Brady Street recently became Reconciliation Way. Yet like the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the actualization of freedom and reconciliation remain delayed.

Meanwhile, these solidarity gestures are trending — names are dropping from public purview and monuments are toppling — but will they be accompanied by the national elimination of voter suppression, shifts in gatekeeping, in policy making, of constitutional amendments, of reparations, of restitution, and structural change?

Crystal Z Campbell, “Juneteenth Celebration on Greenwood (Tulsa, OK)” (2020), © Crystal Z Campbell, 2020

With an underwhelming 6,200 people in attendance at a rally held in a convention center that fits 19,000  — amid a pandemic, no less — Trump’s rally did not rock fault lines that evening. Palpable racial tensions and historical distrust from the 1921 massacre loomed in Tulsa that day. Despite lingering fears the city might be set ablaze again, a race war did not erupt that night.

Back on Greenwood Avenue, along the highway overpass that in the ’60s further fractured a community that rebuilt after racial terrorism, words from an energetic speech by Reverend Al Sharpton hung in the air. A certain type of transcendent Black joy vibrated the concrete, the asphalt, and the facades of the Greenwood rebuilds. A DJ played music well into the light of the moon, punctuated by protestors — mostly masked, jaywalking, and bopping to intermittent rounds of this song by YG and the late Nipsey Hussle. I live and work in the former Greenwood district, but never has it felt like this. It is easy to be nostalgic: what if the massacre never happened?

After Juneteenth, I trade an hour to absorb a film called Mossville: When Great Trees Fall. The film highlights a fenceline community upheld by one man: Stacey Ryan. Stacey’s ancestors were ex-slaves who founded the town of Mossville long before Juneteenth, in 1790. In the present, his inheritance has been reduced to a rectangular plot of land, a trailer, an overfilled yard, and a body succumbing to illness. A South African chemical company Sasol has overrun the town, erasing the history of the place while polluting the air, water, and soil in an arranged marriage of environmental racism and historical erasure. Eventually, Stacey is ousted, too. At the end of the film, he turns to the camera and says:

Once there was a community founded by freed slaves, who lived in peace and happiness. I want people to know we existed.

As “Independence Day” approaches, I am not holding my breath. One hundred and fifty five years post abolition, the tenets of enslavement have evolved into policies and practices extending exploitative labor and the aims of Jim Crow, resulting in shorter life expectancies, redlining, poorly funded schools, school-to-prison pipelines, police brutality, rampant carceral punishment, food deserts, wage gaps, gentrification, surveillance, environmental pollution, voter suppression, microaggressions, and other forms of violence against Black people, both slow and immediate.

Crystal Z Campbell, “Juneteenth Celebration on Greenwood (Tulsa, OK)” (2020), © Crystal Z Campbell, 2020

As Frederick Douglass aptly states, “Independence Day” in 1776 failed to recognize the humanity and citizenship of Black people, who co-founded this country. “Independence Day” failed to liberate us from colonial notions equating Blackness with property, non-personhood, or danger. Revisions to Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and the increasing voids above pedestals signify a national reckoning of symbols and celebrations, but these gestures must be followed by a commitment to restitution.

Roughly two calendar weeks stand between this nation’s first “Independence Day” and its second one, Juneteenth. Yet neither of these alleged “independence” dates equate to freedom. Ironically, these holidays illuminate a racially divided nation, its history steeped in injustice. Freedom in the United States is not a singular idea or experience, and more importantly, the uneven access to this civil right has not been rectified. I wonder how many iterations of these “Independence” days will be observed before Black people have the freedom to simply exist.

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