Reagan Jackson is a writer, artist, activist, international educator and award-winning journalist.
We can’t talk about Juneteenth without discussing freedom. But what do we mean when we use that word? How can we strive for something we can’t define?
“Freedom for me is the ability to commit to my soul’s purpose and live it,” said artist, educator and medicine maker Cristina Orbé. “When I’m in freedom, it’s like singing in a choir where you guys all hit the chord together and there’s a resonance and in the moment you feel so connected to everyone you’re singing with and you feel like everything is possible because it just rings with this tone, and you realize how much more is happening in the world than you really can sense. It’s those moments of complete congruence, that’s when I really feel free.”
What does freedom taste like, smell like, sound like, look like, feel like? For the past three years, the writer Anastacia-Reneé and I have been asking that question to guests on our podcast, The Deep End Friends. Listening to other people answer this question has helped me reconnect with my own sense of what it means to be a free Black woman descendant from people who were enslaved, navigating the dual inheritance of oppression and resilience.
Musician and artist Shontina Vernon described freedom like this: “Agency – being able to make choices for me based on my real desire and not some imposed idea of what I should desire. Freedom is all those things for me.”
Retired educator Dr. Maxine Mimms described freedom as “a collaboratorium.” She talked about how even the games our children play teach us to think and act in ways that don’t liberate our communities. “In the Black community we’re taught checkers, […] jumping over one to get to the next one. That’s how you win. We’re not taught the sliding of the pawns on the chessboard. We’re taught to jump over something, so when you begin to have all of that in your cellular memory, you’ve got to deprogram it, delayer it in such a way that you become humane and introduce your five senses to the other person. So you’ve got to collaborate. You’ve got to dialogue.”
As Juneteenth arrives, I have never felt less free. I am trapped inside two pandemics, COVID-19 and American racism, and unclear which is going to kill me first. Black death is so common and normalized that we actually have to say out loud that “Black Lives Matter” because our laws and our media and our experiences do not reflect that truth. I am soul tired.
Anastacia and I started asking people about freedom because we watched as our friends and families and even total strangers became #saytheirname hashtags. We wondered when we would be next. That wondering became its own form of mental bondage we needed to escape, that we needed freedom from.
So what does freedom mean to me right now?
The freedom of this moment is realizing that I no longer have to be patient. COVID-19 has taught us that our lives can change immediately within the span of weeks. If we can transform our ways of being to keep each other safe from a disease that impacts us all, I no longer accept the excuse that time and patience are needed to change the structures complicit in legalized Black genocide.
Freedom is being able to leave my house without being afraid someone is going to harm me. It’s not feeling my heart in my throat every time I see sirens flash in my rearview mirror. Freedom is being able to say that my life matters without it being a political statement, but just a simple statement of fact. Freedom is being able to breathe.
We celebrate Juneteenth in commemoration not of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves 2½ years before June 19, 1865, but because that day marks the moment when people who remained enslaved finally received the message. You have to know you are free before you can live that truth. And freedom means systems have to be dismantled. We must live the discomfort of figuring out new ways of being. Then maybe we can be free to live in Dr. Mimm's collaboratorium.
But until Juneteenth is celebrated as ubiquitously as the Fourth of July, ethnic studies curriculums replace our whitewashed version of history, police and prisons are defunded and until we have truly reached a place where Black lives not only matter, but our policies, practices and lifestyles reflect it, I don’t think our country will truly know freedom.
Until then, we can take this opportunity to practice and to plan. This Juneteenth will be more than a barbecue and grandma’s potato salad. It will be a reckoning. We are the beginning of the next wave of emancipation. It is time for us to think deeply about the world we want to live in and how we plan to contribute to building this vision. What is the freedom you are seeking and what will you do with it once you find it?
Read more reflections in our Juneteenth series, published in partnership with South Seattle Emerald, below. For more on the history of the holiday, see historian Quintard Taylor's essay at BlackPast.org.
- Juneteenth contains multitudes by Ben Danielson
- A cautionary tale by Lola Peters
- Joy is a revolutionary act by SassyBlack
- On police violence and unexplained loss by Vivian Phillips
- In Seattle, the legacy work of resistance and liberation by Inye Wokoma
- Joy is not the vinyl. It’s the record player by Anastacia-Reneé