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This Juneteenth, Let’s Celebrate International Black Struggle

As the global right wing casts its shadow, we draw strength from the long tradition of Black internationalism.

Anti-poverty activists constructing plywood and canvas tents, known as Resurrection City, on the National Mall as part of the Poor People's Campaign in Washington, D.C., on May 13, 1968.

Transport yourself back into the past, to the year 1865. What if you had been a slave? You had seen friends and family sold. You had been whipped and worked to exhaustion. Every day was a nightmare. Now, a Union army officer, Major General Gordon Granger, arrives in Galveston, Texas, and issues a proclamation that ends slavery.

Imagine that joy. Cheers erupt. Newly freed men and women embrace. Hats are thrown into the air. On a hot June 19 in Texas, Juneteenth is born.

In 2024, 159 years later, it is a national holiday. Across the U.S., Black America celebrates the end of slavery. From cities like New York and Atlanta to small towns, throngs gather to grill food as teens spin in double Dutch ropes. Music booms from speakers so big, it makes beer tremble in your cup.

Underlying these festivities is a question: How free are we? The first national Juneteenth, in 2021, came a year after the George Floyd protests. Today, it arrives amid a white supremacist backlash. Black history has been attacked. Black voting rights are attacked. Black people face ongoing mass incarceration and police violence. Our very civil liberties are on the chopping block as a second Trump administration prepares to gut the government and replace experienced workers with Trump loyalists.

As the global right wing casts its shadow, we draw strength from the long tradition of Black internationalism. Juneteenth is one crest in many waves flowing from a Black united front that spans Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas. The worldwide resistance to white supremacy is what makes our freedom possible. And it can rescue us from the right.

Black United Front

“Justice for Adama!” the speaker shouted as thousands held fists in the air. The rally was held in a Paris suburb in 2020, in solidarity with the George Floyd protests, nearly 3,600 miles away in the United States. On the posters were photos of Adama Traoré, a Black French man who, like George Floyd, was killed by the police. Traoré was murdered in 2016 and in 2020 was elevated into a symbol of the many Arab and African youth profiled and killed by French cops.

Black internationalism is the view that local Black resistance to oppression is part of a larger struggle against global white supremacy. A crucial tenet is the need for a united front that transcends particular national, religious or class identities. A recent example of Black internationalism was the 2020 George Floyd protests that rocked London, Paris, Nairobi and Cape Town. Turn the dial of time backward, and Black internationalism rises and falls like giant waves. The high crests leave marks on history. You see it in the 1970s Black Power era and the multidecade anti-apartheid movement. You see it in the anti-colonial struggles and Back to Africa vision of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.

Look beyond ideology, turn the dial all the way back, and you will find that our shared generational trauma is more important than immediate differences. During the Atlantic slave trade, nearly 12 million Africans were stolen and sold to slavery in the Americas. Each slave ship had in its belly hundreds of terrified people. Each cargo hold was the cauldron of a new Black identity that superseded ethnic identity. In the 1789 memoir, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Olaudah Equiano wrote, “The closeness of the of the place, and the heat of the climate, which was so crowded … almost suffocated us … many died.” Men and women threw themselves into the ocean to escape. Death was chosen over an endless nightmare. For survivors, facing death was a rebirth.

Rebirth came with unity. Contrasting Equiano’s memoir is the 1839 Amistad rebellion in which enslaved Africans seized control of the ship. They came from various ethnic groups like the Ewe, Yoruba and Gurma. Led by Joseph Cinqué, they overcame differences in language and beliefs to fight a common enemy. It was dramatized in the 1997 movie Amistad, where Cinqué pries a nail loose, unlocks his chains and frees others who rush the crew and take the ship. The will to survive united them. Collective resistance transformed them into a new people.

One earth-shaking example of Black internationalism is the Haitian Revolution that began in 1791 and ended with a free Haiti in 1804. News of enslaved Africans, waging war on their masters and taking the island, electrified the Caribbean and United States. The Haitian Revolution sparked Black uprisings in Cuba, Jamaica, Mexico and Brazil. Rebellion throbbed like a volcano under slavery. In his book, American Negro Slave Revolts, Herbert Aptheker chronicled 250 acts of resistance from small bands to Nat Turner’s 1831 massacre of slave owners. When we celebrate the end of slavery on Juneteenth, we are celebrating the Black internationalist struggle.

Black internationalism does not begin in suffering but in the resistance to it. The dynamic created in the slave ship cargo holds and sweltering plantations become a powerful force that set the direction of history. Africans rose like a phoenix, reborn as Black people. They rose from colonial states, ghettos and prisons. They rose from Jim Crow and redlining and the “drug war.” Blackness was a vision that saw through difference to the core truth of human beings: We need to be free to determine our lives.

We Are the World

Even though it was part of a larger Pan-African freedom struggle, the reality is after the Civil War, Juneteenth was seen as a local Texas tradition. In 1865, it was called “Jubilee Day” and was very political. During rallies, thousands of attendees were taught how to vote. Under the post-Reconstruction crackdown, alongside widening class division within Black America and the Great Migration, the holiday lost its luster. Singer Gladys Knight said, “Upwardly mobile blacks … were ashamed of their slave past and aspired to assimilate into mainstream culture. Younger generations of blacks, becoming further removed from slavery were occupied with school … and other pursuits.”

Juneteenth was a container, a sacred day held in limbo until new passions energized it. The decolonization of Africa and the Caribbean, the civil rights and Black Power movements, turned Black people’s eyes toward their own history. Larger crowds gathered on Juneteenth Day. Leaders like Rev. Ralph Abernathy “rebranded” Juneteenth Day as Solidarity Day for the Poor People’s Campaign, when a tent city called Resurrection City was built on the Washington Mall. A multiracial poor and working class traded art, ideas and life stories in the quickly built wood cabins. Reporters wandered with cameras and microphones like beach combers looking for gold. On June 19, 1968, more than 50,000 marched on D.C. to demand a “war on poverty.” Juneteenth Day was resurrected.

History repeats itself. Fifty-three years after Resurrection City, in June 2021, President Biden signed a law making Juneteenth a federal holiday. It was symbolism to be sure. Yet it was symbolism demanded by the immense wave of protest in 2020, here in the U.S. and across the world. Black internationalism, the interconnected George Floyd uprisings, remade Juneteenth into a metric of revolutionary energy.

The question is what does it mean now? A year after Biden signed the holiday into law, he stated, “The answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to fund the police,” and has continuously sought to increase funding for so-called law enforcement. Democratic mayors of the largest cities in the U.S. have raised police budgets year after year. On the other side of the aisle, a coordinated right-wing assault on Black history and Black voting rights — even as politicians court Black male voters — has gained momentum. Trump and the MAGA crowd wait like vultures for Biden to lose the election. They plan to fire federal workers who don’t rubber-stamp extreme right-wing policy. Black people are 18 percent of the federal workforce, and 83 percent of Black people vote Democrat. Imagine who will be targeted first? Add to this the Republican “tough-on-crime” rhetoric that will become draconian policy if given a chance.

Today’s Juneteenth takes its full meaning in a Black international context. It was always part of a larger Pan-African world. It has been the catalyst and channel for revolutionary passion. It has been a day where we dance with our ancestors.

Today, let’s also dance with our descendants. What world will we leave our children? Will they have more or less freedom than we do? Will they have the right to vote, or clean air to breathe or a habitable Earth? Juneteenth is more than celebrating the past, but a time to reimagine the future.

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