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Juneteenth and the urgency of Black Studies

This fall, the Department of Gender, Race, and Identity (GRI) will introduce its new minor in Black Studies. The program was designed for students to learn about transnational and international black thought, resistance and struggles for liberation. The timing couldn’t be more appropriate. This month of June marks the one-year anniversary of President Biden recognizing June 19 as a federal holiday. While the recognition is worth celebrating, the holiday risks fostering American exceptionalism at the expense of black people in the United States and around the world. Already, companies like Walmart have capitalized, creating June 19-themed ice cream. For some reason, holidays celebrating key personalities and events have the effect of erasing complexity. People and events become static, stuck in the past with no apparent connection to the issues of the present. The scientific field of Black Studies helps us prevent the loss of collective memories of struggle that have meaning in our current moment.

Black Studies emerged in academic institutions in the 1960s on the wave of protests and is integrally linked to struggles outside the academy. At the heart of Black Studies is the recognition of black agency and the critical lens that black people have offered on race, class, and gender in the United States and transnationally.

The role of the Black agency is clearly expressed in WEB Du Bois Black reconstruction. He argues that slaves expressed an oft-ignored agency by running away, stunting labor production, poisoning slavers, 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 time when the American racial order could have been dismantled for the benefit of a wide range of people. Recognizing Black agency and worldview reconceptualizes our sense of history by highlighting the struggles necessary to create change. This is essential as we head into Juneteenth.

In popular discourse, Juneteenth or Jubilee marks the day when enslaved African Americans in Texas were told 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 talk about the freedom given to slaves. We talk about freedom as a moment rather than a process. But the end of movable slavery would not have taken place without the intervention of the slaves themselves. Black Studies shows us that struggle and context made Juneteenth possible.

Black Studies also cautions us against resting on our laurels. In The Juneteenth Whitewashing Problem, James Jones III reminds us that freedom was not immediate. Shortly after Juneteenth, the Ku Klux Klan formed and took power over the Texas Legislature, leading to 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.

We can’t lose sight of Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday following protests over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others. It’s hard to call it a victory as police shootings continue alongside 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 us if we stay tuned to the history and analysis of black people around the world. . I have found this to be true in my own scholarly work.

Last May, I completed a Masters 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 theorization and organization 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. Their juxtaposition reveals a transnational black imaginary that points to ways to structure society outside of the racism, sexism and greed of capitalism. They call on us to embrace difference while working collectively to care for humanity and the environment without hierarchies or climate destruction.

The field of Black Studies reveals the ideological and systemic impacts of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy around the world while keeping us grounded as we strive for a just world. Looking at Juneteenth from the perspective of Black Studies allows us to reevaluate how change is effected. Indeed, a focus on black thought, resistance, and struggles outside the United States enriches our understanding of power systems on a transnational scale, as in the case of my own studies. I suggest students take advantage of the new GRI minor and, in the spirit of Black Studies, link their learning and research to action.

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