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Juneteenth: Barriers to freedom and belonging remain

A collage of four portraits - three men and one woman smile at the camera. They are all outside.
From left to right: Phillip Prospers, Kandace Montgomery, Brandyn Tulloch, and Drunken Monkeee. (CBJ Photos: Jasmine McBride)

For the past two weeks, communities across the nation celebrated Juneteenth, marking the day in 1865 when the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas finally learned of their freedom - freedom which had been declared by the federal government two and a half years earlier. 

158 years later, many Americans of African descent still see real liberation as a dream held by both the dead and the living.

“Liberation is to be delivered out of this hell, this pit, and placed on higher ground. A place where we can see where our hands, our feet, and our minds work for us, and not for them,” said local artist Namir Pearce. “Freedom ain't free.”

I spoke to Twin Cities residents about their experience living under the weight of Black identity.  Most could not imagine their lives outside the lens of 'freedom resistance.' In that sense, how far have we really come from the days of slavery? 

“The ways that we police ourselves and each other… The ways that we tell ourselves that we aren't deserving, that we can't have exactly what we want, that we can't move in the ways – or dress in the ways – or express ourselves in the ways that feel true to us. I think that that is a key thing that we have to remove, because it also allows us to then justify the systems that say the same thing about us and that police us literally and metaphorically,” said community member Kandace Montgomery.

Montgomery says a persisting threat to Black well-being in today’s society is the continued denial of belonging. 

The Black experience in America has always been shaped by oppression, whether it’s slavery, Reconstruction, the 13th Amendment, voter suppression, segregation, Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan, church bombings, police brutality or racial discrimination. 

“We've always had to imagine what freedom can feel like… imagine what freedom could be for us, because it's never been something that we fully experienced,” said local author and artist, Brandyn Tulloch.

Despite the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice’s enforcement of federal laws that prohibit discrimination in major life areas like education, employment, housing, lending, voting and law enforcement, Americans of African descent still face great disparities in all of these areas. 

A Black person wearing overalls and a baseball cap smiles at the camera and makes a peace sign with their right hand.
Poet Danez Smith

Poet Danez Smith says this is the result of greed.

“We live in a country where if we restructure things, I don't think people need to be homeless. I don't think people need to be hungry,” says Smith. “In America, it's all about, ‘I want my life to be well.’ But I think we need to have a little bit more of like, I want my neighbor's life to be well, too.”

Key to the Black experience is the ongoing struggle for change. In addition to building the infrastructure and economic wealth of the United States, Black people have also led some of the greatest justice movements. KRSM radio host Drunken Monkeee says while ‘village’ thinking – a phrase that speaks to traditional African values of building together – is valuable, ‘self first’ thinking is imperative for marginalized communities in an individualist society.

“A lot of us always talking about trying to change the world, but the world can't change without a person changing they self.” 

And while it seems that 158 years is still not enough time to truly heal from the historic and systemic harm done to Black and brown people, some say freedom - what was only a dream during the times of slavery - is becoming more and more of a decision each day.

“It's in you” said community member Phillip Prospers. “The joy, liberation, well-being, happy life, smiles, joy, love, peace, gentleness, acceptance, it's all inside of you.” 

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