969px Civil Rights March on Washington D C Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Mathew Ahmann in a crowd NARA 542015 Restoration

Wed, Aug 12, 2020

The Movement Continues: History of Juneteenth Part 2

Flash Forward to 2020: An Introduction by Helen Aldana

As a reminder from Part 1 of this blog series, June 19th, 1865, aka Juneteenth, honors a step towards Black liberation in the United States. It was the day all enslaved Black people in the United States of America (I hope) got news that they were free. There is also July 4th, 1776, “Independence Day", that celebrates a long-standing skewed and exclusive version of freedom. As you can see these dates are 89 years apart, meaning there were enslaved people while others celebrated and rejoiced in their independence.

This is history, created by people, credited to fewer people, and built on the work of many others. Since we are far from the year 1865, one could assume that Black liberation looks differently than it does now. Right? So I ask, where are we (you and I), in this history? What is Black liberation? Where is Black liberation now and how are we moving it forward?

As we experience this revolution addressing the struggles Black communities face for liberation, it is important we see all the ways we in Santa Cruz County are contributing to their uprising for freedom and all the ways we are preventing it.

In conversations with community member and friend Dr. Aaron Jones, Interim Director of
Educational Opportunity Programs
at UC Santa Cruz, we talked about the questions that have come up for him these past few months, and that quite honestly have always been present – and have always been tiring.

We discussed recent experiences with White colleagues, neighbors, and community members “showing up” in response to the uprisings and the labor they have been asking of him, other Black people, and the few people of color in their workplace. We wondered how White people in our community see the Black people they know and do not know. Do they see them as the solution, the problem, or the laborer? Is how White people treat Black people reflective of how they see them?

It is exhausting to do the work others are responsible for. Black people are taking care of themselves from the uncompensated labor in addition to the healing they are already growing through. This exhaustion is what many need to be aware of, including you and me.

Below, Dr. Aaron Jones generously shares his reflections on what we discussed and I ask you to trust, listen, and learn.

Aaron jones 2018 2

“Who’s lives matter and whose lives do not? Why are we drawing any lines at all? What is the problem here? Who is the problem?”

Aaron Jones

Anti-racist Problem-solving by Dr. Aaron Jones

It seems like a simple and self-explanatory refrain. Black Lives Matter.

Like many things in life, what is simple to some, is incomprehensible to others. But where do we draw the line in our efforts to be in community with each other? Whose lives matter and whose lives do not? Why are we drawing any lines at all? What is the problem here? Who is the problem?

I have been in deep reflection about the health and safety of my community as a cishet Black Man in the last few months. Quite honestly, I have had to think harder, more often, and in more creative ways than others. This was not so that I can earn the three degrees I possess nor to solve the complex problems that face higher education institutions in my daily work. I have always had to think harder about survival. Every time I leave my house, I have to think harder, to survive because I never know what day might be the day that I become a hashtag. I have to be careful how I talk to people, how I dress, how I walk but even then, I could still be unarmed, well-spoken and well-dressed, and killed on a Tuesday. No amount of preparation, training, education, can withstand the fears of a white person’s imagination about the potentiality of Black people as a threat.

I am from South Central Los Angeles and was about six years old when the Los Angeles Uprising, or LA Riots, occurred in May of 1992. I didn’t understand what was happening but all I can remember is a blanket fear at the running, the screaming, and the smell of fire that engulfed my neighborhood. It was not until many years later that I realized that it was a part of a tradition and history of frustration channeled into what folks might call “misguided violence.”

WEB Du Bois 1918

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868 – 1963), co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in 1918.

What’s the Problem?

W.E.B. Dubois, in “Souls of Black Folk,” describes the feeling of being a renowned scholar among white colleagues that look as if to ask, “How does it feel to be a problem?” This quote reverberates through time and hits me today with a force that strongly connects me to Dr. Dubois. Under the current circumstances, I have white colleagues today who echo this same mantra in response to Black community members’ frustrations, “Why do we always have to discuss the negative things going on?” or “Why are Black folks so angry, if you work hard in America, everybody has a chance.”

Do you see the problem?

I am not here to either sing the praises or speak in defense of this or any other uprising for justice. The late great Toni Morrison said, “I can’t wait for the ultimate liberation theory to imagine it’s practice and do its work.” The work of “ultimate liberation,” whatever that means for folks, continues and it continues to evolve or even resurface when it’s necessary. We all also have different parts to play in the movement towards a more equitable world.

969px Civil Rights March on Washington D C Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Mathew Ahmann in a crowd NARA 542015 Restoration

Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which he delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech, calling for an end to racism.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. published a book in 1964 about how we shouldn’t wait to pursue justice, but why? He gravely considered the conditions under which many Black folks live and have lived in the United States for centuries. Imagine a country where the law and the country were constructed on the backs of your ancestors and on the stolen land of other ancestors. Imagine a country where the “Founding fathers” declare their independence from one oppressive system while standing upon the bludgeoned bodies of human property. Imagine, making advances but never getting due credit for your inventions, for your social ideas, and for your contributions to the effort to open the door for other communities to be more free. Imagine 155 years from “freedom” having to still call for the end to the murder of unarmed, untried, and unassuming Black men, women, and children by organized state violence without repercussions.

We are not the problem.

What do we do next?

It would take several lifetimes to fully understand what it means to be Black or to be from a marginalized identity. Though I’ve lived 3+ decades as a Black man, sometimes I still don’t fully understand. So it is not my expectation that anyone fully understands me and my experience. The labor required for me to understand myself and also to teach and socialize our white neighbors to a more egalitarian society is tiresome. I have been fatigued, as have many of my friends and family. We have white colleagues and friends, and people we barely know entreating us to educate them on centuries worth of miseducation. Some may have the bandwidth but not every Black person does. My ancestors’ labor was exploited for the benefit of a few and I would like to encourage folks to discontinue the labor of providing free diversity education. I am happy to provide reading lists from authors who have lived and diligently researched this work. These authors deserve to be compensated for that work.

IMG 9171

Toni Morrison and President Barack Obama by Pete Souza, courtesy of the Barack Obama Presidential Library and Museum.

Also, let’s dispel with symbolic action. It may seem like there has been so much progress when the first Black person is voted in as US President or the recent news of the first person of color and first Black person as President of the University of California. But this does not inherently change structure. We need to get to the deep “root-work” of dismantling the foundations of white supremacy and anti-Black racism that are endemic to our social institutions. To place all of the burden for change on these iconic leaders who are the first in positions of power, like Barack Obama or Dr. Michael Drake, is unfair. They often sit at the top alone or one of very few leaders with marginalized identities, seeking change with very little support. This work for systemic change requires collective effort and accomplices, not allies, to work diligently with them. This arduous work may include defunding, refunding, reimagining, or restructuring our government, our educational system, and our economy. While street name changes and renaming the Washington Redskins are commendable, we want an end to redlining, the electoral college, qualified immunity, and inclusive syllabi to name a few things.

There is no room for debating humanity. There is also no room for a world without hope.

Why am I partnering with the MAH on this additional conversation about Juneteenth?

Juneteenth was/is a celebration of freedom for Black folks in a way that was not present on the Fourth of July. But even that celebration only represents freedom at that time, but we can use it to further imagine what liberation can mean and look like for our collective future.

Black books matter, Black minds matter, Black joy matters, and Black lives matter.