Updated: May 25, 2022
This past week I had the pleasure of facilitating six workshops. I shared virtual space with approximately 1,000 people from over a dozen companies based in the US and globally. Our topic of discussion: The True Story of Emancipation in the United States. From conducting these sessions, what became solidified for me is that the story of emancipation is a history that many still don’t know. Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, Freedom Day – Juneteenth is a historical day that the majority of Americans still know nothing or little about. While this is not shocking, it is continually upsetting – especially for those who are learning about history that has been kept from them for the first time. The question that I constantly hear from sharing the story of emancipation is:
Why didn’t I learn about this in history class?
A few months ago, I was connected with Jason Lavender, Co-Founder at a newly established enterprise learning start-up, Electives. He was looking for an instructor to conduct workshops on the meaning of Juneteenth. It was a rising request from within the Electives community, especially among companies who would be observing the holiday for the first or second time. Being the ever-passionate historian that I am, I of course jumped at the opportunity to design a session to educate people on the history behind the “actual” end to slavery in the United States. A history I already knew wasn’t widely acknowledged or shared. We got to work designing, and the end product:
It wasn’t easy determining what to include in an hour-long virtual workshop on 500 years of global and US history based on Western European colonization, the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the African Diaspora, enslavement of people of African descent in the US, and overall African American history, but we made it work. What has resulted is immense engagement with the session and an outpouring of gratitude for making this learning possible. A response Jason and I could only have dreamed of.
The people who we have had the honor of sharing the story of emancipation with aren’t alone in being upset for having history kept from them. I too grew up in Greater Boston unaware of much of my own Black history in the US. When comparing our learning experiences in Massachusetts, Jason and I realized that we grew up learning the same New England grade school history themes:
“Columbus the great explorer!”
“Eli Whitney, the great inventor!”
“Slavery – a southern problem.”
As a first generation American, the daughter of Caribbean immigrants, and a direct descendant of the powerful people who survived slavery in the Americas, I was raised to be Black and proud. My parents each from an island colonized by the British, I grew up understanding the similar plight Black people across the Atlantic world faced and still face as a result of the shared circumstance of their enslavement. I also understood the shared heart, resilience, and culture that resulted through that shared circumstance. I grew up celebrating the emancipation of enslaved people in my fatherland of Antigua, because it was something we celebrated every year through month-long Carnival festivities. I grew up understanding the significance of the Haitian Revolution – the first successful slave revolt to result in the winning of Black independence from white colonizers and the creation of the first Black republic in the world. A beacon of hope for all Black people across the world.
As a US born citizen, what I didn’t grow up learning was the true story of emancipation in the United States. What I didn’t grow up celebrating was the historic date of June 19, 1865. What I didn’t grow up with was the space to solidify why it matters to me.
Through my intense study and love of history, I have come to know and understand the significance of what took place on June 19, 1865 – what has been celebrated as Juneteenth in the African American community ever since. As an American and Black woman, the story of the Global African Diaspora – our enslavement, emancipation, everything that happened in between, everything that happened before, and everything that has happened since is immensely important to me. It is my history. It is your history. It is American history. It is our global history. It is only through knowing it, acknowledging it, embracing it, and when applicable, celebrating it, that we can continuously grow and improve from it.
While in the middle of delivering a Delayed Liberation workshop this week, Jason and I received the news via a workshop participant that the US Senate had just passed a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Something that hasn’t been done in close to 40 years since Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was made a national holiday. Yesterday, on Friday June 18, 2021, President Biden signed the passed bill into law.
We all have a reason why the story of emancipation matters to us, and there are so many reasons why that story has been kept from us. There are too many places throughout the western world that don’t celebrate the story of emancipation of those who were enslaved in the Americas, Caribbean, and Europe as a result of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. For that attempted erasure of history we all suffer. The US has been one of those places. My hope is that through our individual and collective learning and progress, the United States is one of those places no more. My hope is that this generation of young people grows up to be adults who never have to ask: why didn’t I learn about that in history class? My hope is that they have the space to solidify why it matters to them.
Sharing the story of emancipation matters to me because I know that when it is shared accurately and properly, how empowering it can be. Sharing the story of emancipation matters to me because I want to make sure that everyone, including a little Black girl from Boston, knows her-story; his-story; their-story; the accurate story. Let’s learn, know, reflect on, and celebrate the story.