By Buki Domingos
Juneteenth this year is on Saturday, June 19th and it is a critical time for the United States to take stock of not just Black lives, but also the forms of human oppression that are still encountered in our society. The historical markers that the end of slavery represent in the US are not just part of a yearly commemoration that African Americans participate in and publicly celebrate. It is also an opportunity for the entire society to fully appreciate how deeply slavery has impacted the Black population and how our racial divide continues to plague the US. It is also a time to think about all forms of oppression that exist in the US and what can be done to eradicate these forms of exploitation.
There is tension between what this celebration for the end of slavery represents with Juneteenth as well as the legacy of what this history of slavery still means within the nature of this historical marker. On the one hand, there is profound appreciation in the narrative of Juneteenth as a way to honor and commemorate the official end of slavery in the US:
On “Freedom’s Eve,” or the eve of January 1, 1863, the first Watch Night services took place. On that night, enslaved and free African Americans gathered in churches and private homes all across the country awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect. At the stroke of midnight, prayers were answered as all enslaved people in the Confederate States were declared legally free. Union soldiers, many of whom were black, marched onto plantations and across cities in the south reading small copies of the Emancipation Proclamation spreading the news of freedom in the Confederate States. Only through the Thirteenth Amendment did emancipation end slavery throughout the United States.
While on the other hand we also recognize:
But not everyone in Confederate territory would immediately be free. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation was made effective in 1863, it could not be implemented in places still under Confederate control. As a result, in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas, enslaved people would not be free until much later. Freedom finally came on June 19, 1865, when some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. The army announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved black people in the state, were free by executive decree. This day came to be known as “Juneteenth,” by the newly freed people in Texas.” (https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/historical-legacy-juneteenth)
Within this Juneteenth historical marker is the paradox that the date for the official Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 was not the official end for slavery in Texas, and in fact, that the end of slavery was delivered to Texas by Union military occupation on June 19th, 1865. This second narrative for the end of slavery incorporates not a simple recognition of a particular of human evil and it being eradicated, but this continuity of this oppressive treatment of Africans provides a profound lesson for us about the limitations of dominant narratives about societal solutions and progress.
Furthermore, research has shown that historically in the US it is impossible to not come to terms with the greatest depths of human evils and savagery. From the accounts from the Middle Passage and Africans being thrown overboard in chains to lighten shiploads to slave auction blocks and intense forms of torture that were included in the seasoning process for many Africans, it becomes very clear how destructive and cruel humans can be towards other humans. These forms of human exploitation are also deeply rooted in the fabric of our society and need persistent vigilance to eradicate.
Consequently, it is in this capacity to commit such human atrocities on a systematic and grand scale that the US should find a sober reminder for these current conditions. In particular, in the current struggle to abolish human trafficking, there are traces of historical markers for depravity and cruelty. The fact that human trafficking is still a prevalent issue that includes the vilest and most insidious treatment of humans by other humans suggests that the US and systems of oppression have not collectively moved far from the darkest periods of US history. The uncomfortable questions about what does it mean for people to be still sold into sex and labor bondage must be asked. Why do some people use other humans for sexual exploitation? For slave labor?
Even with these practices being outlawed and state-sanctioned they continue to persist in the US. In particular, in San Diego, a recent report stated that:
The numbers are staggering. There are between 8,830 and 11,773 victims [or] survivors of human trafficking in San Diego County. The majority of sex-trafficking victims, 79.3 percent, are born in the United States; 11.4 percent are from Mexico. The average age of entry into sex trafficking in the county is 16.1 years. Fifty-five percent of victims are either homeless or have been homeless.
The data available for human trafficking suggest it is a larger cross-section of the society that becomes ensnared in these forms of oppression. These numbers also suggest it is not just a matter of legal sanction and enforcement of laws that can end these human trafficking practices, the data speaks to how the US functions today. These tough questions must be asked and addressed; only then can Juneteenth come into sharper focus in the US’ historical legacy with racial minorities. A greater level of understanding is needed which historically comes through education on all levels and works of life for the US to understand how important it is to commit to acknowledging and stomping out all forms of human oppression.
In conclusion, getting involved in the “good fight” (Lewis), is critical in combatting human trafficking locally and nationally. Joining or signing up with organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) locally or nationally is a great way to initially get connected, get educated, and ultimately get involved. There are many avenues available for anyone to get involved to confront and challenge the forms of oppression that continue to plague this society and the courage and strength to work on these very pernicious problems can be summoned to take this battle one step at a time.