Skip to content Skip to footer

Juneteenth Reminds Us That “Black Freedom” Is an Ongoing Project

Juneteenth reminds us that freedom — however seemingly impossible or ineffable — is worth spending our lives pursuing.

People celebrate Juneteenth at the African Burial Ground National Monument on June 19, 2023, in New York City.

The concept of complete freedom from the weight of racial oppression/anti-Blackness has always been a dream for Black people in the United States, where racist policing, vigilante violence, mass incarceration and acute economic oppression carry on the legacy of the racist system of slavery on which the nation’s economy was built. Indeed, in what was to become known as the United States, it was in 1619 that “20 and odd” commodified enslaved Black people arrived in an anti-Black world where they had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Despite our continued lack of freedom in many ways today, the tremendous importance of celebrating Juneteenth is not lost on me.

We must never forget what it meant politically, spiritually and existentially for those remaining enslaved Black people to be told of their freedom in the summer of 1865. The arrival in Texas of Major Gen. Gordon Granger, along with other Union soldiers, with the news that enslaved Black people were free, according to the Emancipation Proclamation (though signed much earlier on January 1, 1863), must have felt like a mighty godsend. It must have been a moment where, as James Baldwin wrote in another context, “heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.”

Yet, again, complete freedom remains a dream. As we know, after slavery formally ended with the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865, Black codes were created, Jim Crowism was ensconced into law, and white terroristic lynching functioned as sites of white enjoyment and control. Black people, of course, continue to experience new forms of de facto Jim Crow harassment, policing and surveillance, and new forms of lynching. So, when I think about celebrating Juneteenth, I’m sadly reminded of what Black poet Langston Hughes said: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” Hughes ends that poem with, “Or does it explode?”

Black historian and writer Saidiya V. Hartman captures the afterlife of slavery in her book, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, where she writes, “black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery — skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.”

Given the reality of the afterlife of slavery, it is hard not to experience a sense of deep aporia (perplexity or contradiction) as we celebrate Juneteenth. In this exclusive interview for Truthout, E. Hughes, author of the poetry collection Ankle-Deep in Pacific Water (forthcoming from Haymarket Books) and a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Emory University, brings clarity and a necessary greater complexity to this tension.

George Yancy: What for you is the significance of Juneteenth? And do you share my sense of needing to tarry with the continued oppression of Black people despite this day of celebration?

E. Hughes: Juneteenth’s significance exists at the limit of meaning and unmeaning, which is contingent upon the larger social judgments of Black worthiness. Juneteenth, once a celebration known and understood mostly by African Americans, has entered the public and political arena with as little control over its own representation, its image, and its trajectory. (Candidly, I am suspicious of this mainstream and federal adoption of Juneteenth, given the fact that many Black people will not have the day off. I will refrain from going into this detail any further for the sake of brevity.) To begin to answer the question about the significance of Juneteenth, one must begin with: What does it mean to be free and Black? And are freedom and Black congruent terms? As you have already emphasized in your comments, at its inception, emancipation was delayed; and in its current state, “Black freedom” is an unfinished project of the 19th century. For that reason, I will stay with impossibility and what impossibility may tell us about freedom — especially the certain (im)possibility of a Black freedom.

There is a supreme temptation for white people in the United States to consider themselves to have been an integral and defining component of Black liberation by helping to create the political and legal conditions for the possibility of emancipation and desegregation.

For Black people, the tension between the possibility and impossibility of freedom seems to stem from an aporia inherent to the question “What is freedom?” While there are clearly material stakes in the question, I want to maintain that there are metaphysical assumptions that shape and influence our social and political response and understanding of “Black freedom.” In Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, theorist Saidiya Hartman writes, “I am trying to grapple … with the nonevent of emancipation insinuated by the perpetuation of the plantation system and the reconfiguration of subjection.” Hartman teaches us that Black liberation is always at odds with systems of knowing, of being, of politicking that arrange themselves in accordance with dialectical reconciliation — or the harmony of universalism and progress.

Traditionally, freedom can only be known through slavery and incarceration, through the domination of the other (or marginalized groups), resulting in the conscription of labor to undergird the task of culture-building and recognition. German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s infamous master-slave dynamic is still with us, centuries later, contouring our notions of freedom: If I am free, the other must be unfree to solidify my status as an autonomous being. Still, Hegel’s codependent account of freedom and slavery is not a racial account of either slavery or liberty.

Frantz Fanon, in Black Skin, White Masks, argues that the Black slave is not synonymous with the Hegelian slave; for, unlike the Hegelian slave, the Black slave lacks the relation and reciprocity with the white in order to produce its own social and ontological standing. For Fanon, the incapacitating reality of the Black slave is the fact that freedom came from the outside (from the white) — from an external force that decided that it was no longer morally, economically or politically beneficial to hold chattel slaves. For Fanon, the fact of the psycho-existential position of Blackness is indicative of a metaphysical annihilation (a destruction of Black being) with which Black people must still contend. What then is the freedom that we celebrate during Juneteenth?

In the introduction to Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon writes, “There is a zone of nonbeing, an extraordinarily sterile and arid region, an utterly naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born.” In this quotation, I take Fanon to mean that a Black person, walking through this zone of alienation, not only must contend with her position of nonbeing but also must bear the weight of possibility in the form of ontological, epistemological and sociopolitical upheaval. She must always be willing to attempt to accomplish what is currently impossible in the form of a legitimized Black freedom.

Fanon does not mean a simple gesture of racial integration or economic enfranchisement. Instead, he means Black people must use — against our drives to legitimize ourselves in society and to be understood as human (or white) — the spontaneity of our inner poetic activity. He writes, “I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence. In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself. I am a part of Being to the degree that I go beyond it.”

In the 21st century, our discussion of anti-Blackness and Black oppression must leap beyond the simulacra of an “authentic” struggle against the dominant system of whiteness. Perhaps, we might instead ask what it means to have, as Fanon puts it, “no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man.” If slavery is ahistorical as defined by both dominant forms of white historicity and sociopolitical systems, then slavery as an ontological position is alive and unchallenged by our legal systems, knowledge systems, and our systems of aesthetic judgment. What freedom must we celebrate? To me, what Black people have — in spite of all of our systemic and historical dispossession — is the possibility of a poetic leap into something new, something other than a dialectical system of knowing, of relating and of being free — a leap toward uncertainty. Thus, the significance of Juneteenth lies in its undecidable potential — in a Black enteral leaping.

How do we as Black people remain true to the emancipatory message, symbolism and reality of Juneteenth and yet remain aware of the continued reality of Black forms of unfreedom? How should we negotiate those two things? And why should we keep them in play simultaneously?

At the end of the study and scathing critique of the Freedmen’s Bureau in The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B Du Bois writes during the first decade of the 20th century, “For this much all men know: despite compromise, war, and struggle, the Negro is not free.” Thus, this tension between the “truth” of the message of Juneteenth and the reality of Black unfreedom seems to be a specter of the discourse on Black liberation. By this, I mean that there is an impossibility for Blackness to emerge as free (in and for itself), yet there is also a drive to make Blackness legible through the reformation of a metaphysical system and political ideologies that require the abjection of slaves. This tension highlights for Black people that we must not simply bear this tension between freedom and unfreedom but attempt to do something different with the tension — without reconciling the poles of this difference. This, of course, is an unreadable task and requires a new set of questions for that which is unthinkable without relying on humanism, which is entangled in whiteness.

If white people must celebrate, let it not be with glad pats on the back. Instead, let it be a moribund mediation on the psychic pathologies of their societies, with the reality that they invented a new form of slavery.

Nobel laureate Toni Morrison contends with this ineffability in the essay titled, “The Site of Memory,” which was written during (though published after) her most famous novel Beloved. The novel explores the inner lives of a formerly enslaved woman, Sethe, who committed infanticide in order to save her child from slavery. The novel centers around how Sethe and her family deal with the ghost of slavery and the ghost of a murdered child. In “The Site of Memory,” Morrison is faced with the conundrum of writing fiction about the inner lives of the enslaved during the aftermath of emancipation. Morrison argues, “The crucial distinction for me is not the difference between fact and fiction, but the distinction between fact and truth. Because facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot.” While I have trouble with Morrison’s use of “human,” I understand her quotation as offering something significant about the inventive work that is made possible with tension. “Truth” — however immaterial — must be made. And the truth of Juneteenth, alongside the truth of our unfreedom, must be something synonymous with invention without genre, as the concept of genre is too limiting and fixed.

Therefore, your question about remaining true to the message of Juneteenth might open another set of questions: What does it mean to pursue freedom — despite its impossibility, caused by the mechanism of anti-Blackness? What would it mean to relinquish the values (liberal notions of freedom) of society to meet Blackness (something that tarries beyond discursive meaning and the epidermis) in its own groundlessness?

It is not enough that Black people celebrate Juneteenth alone. Indeed, if my sense of gloom regarding the complete freedom of Black people in the U.S. is true, then I also experience the same dread regarding the complete freedom from anti-Blackness that white people embody systemically, psychologically and through their embodied actions and habits. How should white people celebrate Juneteenth?

There is a supreme temptation for white people in the United States to consider themselves to have been an integral and defining component of Black liberation by helping to create the political and legal conditions for the possibility of emancipation and desegregation. In many ways, white America has taken the history of these resistance movements, buried the bodies of political martyrs and prisoners and their children, and assimilated these movements into their larger metanarratives of Western “progress.”

Satirically, Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks, “The … masters argued, for after all it was not an easy thing, but then they decided to promote the machine-animal-men to the supreme rank of men.” Here, Fanon, disillusioned with the simulacrum that represents Black freedom as possible only if it is initiated from the outside, from the exterior, suggests that white people take a degrading pleasure in liberating Black people — in “providing” their freedom.

On this Juneteenth, if white people must celebrate, may they deny themselves this sadistic pleasure. If white people must celebrate, may they contend with what they refuse to understand and accept about the manner in which their ontological and political statuses were forged through centuries of Black death and enslavement. If white people must celebrate, let it not be with glad pats on the back. Instead, let it be a moribund mediation on the psychic pathologies of their societies, with the reality that they invented a new form of slavery — a pathology that still mangles Blackness in unfreedom today.

As we speak, there is so much deep political oppression and pain and suffering around the world. How might the spirit of Juneteenth be deployed in solidarity with so many others who are suffering forms of unfreedom outside of the U.S.?

Philosophy begins to fail when there is a need to talk about suffering. In our contemporary moment, philosophy is failing Palestinian people, the genocide in Gaza, the tens of thousands of dead children, and those suffering through famine. While there is no analogy for chattel slavery, the perpetuity of Black suffering and Palestinian suffering through genocide, although endured in vastly different contexts, inform each other’s fathomlessness. Poetry, though the opposite of an answer, might offer a way to wade through intolerable amounts of pain. In this moment, I can offer two poems that work through the uncertainties of death and political resistance. In the poem titled, “If We Must Die,” Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay writes:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,

While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,

Making their mock at our accursèd lot.

If we must die, O let us nobly die,

So that our precious blood may not be shed

In vain; then even the monsters we defy

Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!

O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!

Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,

And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!

What though before us lies the open grave?

Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

In the poem titled “If I Must Die,” the Palestinian poet Refaat Alareer, who died in an airstrike in Gaza in 2023, writes,

If I must die,

you must live

to tell my story

to sell my things

to buy a piece of cloth

and some strings,

(make it white with a long tail)

so that a child, somewhere in Gaza

while looking heaven in the eye

awaiting his dad who left in a blaze —

and bid no one farewell

not even to his flesh

not even to himself —

sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up above

and thinks for a moment an angel is there

bringing back love

If I must die

let it bring hope

let it be a tale.

If these poems teach us anything, side by side, it is that freedom — however seemingly impossible or ineffable — is worth spending our lives pursuing. This perhaps is the latent message of Juneteenth — however impossible it is to overcome unspeakable acts of systemic violence — our lives are worth leaping into a new notion of freedom. Freedom, not as it is traditionally understood, but as it should be.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Countdown is on: We have 3 days to raise $31,000

Truthout has launched a necessary fundraising campaign to support our work. Can you support us right now?

Each day, our team is reporting deeply on complex political issues: revealing wrongdoing in our so-called justice system, tracking global attacks on human rights, unmasking the money behind right-wing movements, and more. Your tax-deductible donation at this time is critical, allowing us to do this core journalistic work.

As we face increasing political scrutiny and censorship for our reporting, Truthout relies heavily on individual donations at this time. Please give today if you can.