Juneteenth and the urgency of Black Studies
The introduction of GRI's Black Studies minor this fall could not be more needed, nor more timely
This fall, the Department of Gender, Race & Identity (GRI) will introduce its new minor in Black Studies. The program was designed so that students learn about transnational and international Black thought, resistance and struggles for liberation. The timing could not be more fitting. This June marks the one year anniversary of President Biden recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday. While the recognition is worthy of celebration, the holiday risks furthering American exceptionalism at the expense of Black people in the US and the world over. Already companies like Walmart have capitalized, creating Juneteenth-themed ice cream. For some reason, holidays celebrating key figures and events have the effect of erasing complexity. People and events become static, stuck in the past with no seeming connection to the troubles of the present. The scholarly field of Black Studies helps us to prevent the loss of collective memories of struggle that hold meaning in our current moment.
Black Studies emerged in academic institutions in the 1960s on the wave of protests and is integrally tied to struggles outside of the academy. At the heart of Black Studies is the recognition of Black agency and of the critical lens that Black peoples have offered on race, class, and gender in the United States and transnationally.
The role of Black agency is vividly expressed in W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction. He argues that the enslaved expressed an oft-ignored agency by running away, slowing work production, poisoning enslavers, and a host of other activities that helped facilitate the Civil War. Their refusal constituted a general strike that not only forced the hand of American society but made possible a different world through Reconstruction, a moment in which the U.S. racial order could have been dismantled to benefit a broad swath of people. Recognizing the agency and worldview of Black people reconceptualizes our sense of history by highlighting the struggles necessary to create change. This is critical as we move toward Juneteenth.
In popular discourse, Juneteenth or Jubilee marks the day that enslaved African Americans in Texas were informed of their freedom as stipulated by the Emancipation Proclamation. The day has long been celebrated and recognized by African Americans, especially in Texas and the South. Often, we speak of freedom being bestowed on the enslaved. We speak of freedom as a moment rather than a process. But the end of chattel slavery would not have occurred without the agency of the enslaved themselves. Black Studies show us that struggle and context made Juneteenth possible.
Black Studies also warns us against resting on our laurels. In The Problem with White-washing Juneteenth, James Jones III reminds us that freedom was not immediate. Soon after Juneteenth, the Ku Klux Klan formed and gained power over the Texas legislature, enabling the creation of Jim Crow and over 450 lynchings in the state over the next sixty years. Slavery ended, but the racial order continued to marginalize Black people in new ways.
It cannot be lost on us that Juneteenth was made a federal holiday in the wake of protests against the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. It is hard to take it as a victory while police shootings continue in tandem with white supremacist massacres like the recent tragedy in Buffalo, New York. But Black Studies, and the struggles of Black people, remind us that despite these tragedies and violence, the possibility of a new world awaits if we stay attuned to the history and analysis of Black peoples the world over. I have found this to be true in my own scholarly work.
This May, I graduated with a master’s degree in Gender, Race, and Identity at UNR. My thesis juxtaposed two novels by Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, with the theorizing and organizing of a social movement in Colombia, the Proceso Comunidades Negras (PCN or Black Community Process). These examples represent experiences across the Black diaspora but share a common worldview shaped by the legacies of colonialism and slavery. Juxtaposing them reveals a transnational Black imaginary that points to ways to structure society outside of racism, sexism, and the avarice of capitalism. They call on us to embrace difference while working collectively to take care of humanity and the environment without hierarchies and climate destruction.
The field of Black Studies reveals the ideological and systemic impacts of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy the world over while keeping us grounded as we aspire for a just world. Viewing Juneteenth from the lens of Black Studies allows us to reevaluate how change is made. Indeed, placing our focus on Black thought, resistance, and struggles outside the U.S. enriches our understanding of systems of power transnationally as in the case of my own studies. I suggest students take advantage of GRI’s new minor and, in the spirit of Black Studies, and tie their learning and research to action.