Black girls hold protest signs and speak at a rally
“Demilitarize the Police, Black Lives Matter” by Johnny Silvercloud. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

Toni Morrison

This is no time for fear. And yet, I am afraid.

I am afraid of speaking out. I am sure you know this fear. But our fear is NOTHING compared to the fear that our Black and Indigenous neighbors have felt for centuries. CENTURIES.

When I decided to write something for Juneteenth, as a historian, I wanted to focus on educating others about the history of this day – the first national commemoration of the end of slavery. But you can read about that here. What is most important to remember in this time, though, is part of the text of the original order from that day:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865

While the statement above is, in some parts, racist – assuming that Blacks would become idle or riotous – it is also a clear statement of equality. Absolute equality in personal rights, which are also called “civil liberties.” These rights involve an individual’s ability to make decisions about their personal life and their social relations, free from government interference. According to the Freedom Collection, personal rights fall in four groupings:

  • Freedom of Expression and Belief, including the right to (1) express opinions freely in public and private; (2) have access to free and independent media; (3) worship and think freely in public and private; and (4) receive an education free from political indoctrination.
  • Freedom of Association, including the right to (1) assemble in or organize a public demonstration, and (2) form civic groups, interest groups, or other public associations.
  • Freedom under the Rule of Law, including the right to (1) due process in administering and adjudicating laws exercised by an independent judiciary, and (2) equal protection of the rights of all people, including safeguards for those in minority groups.
  • Freedom of Personal Autonomy, including the rights to (1) make decisions about modes of life apart from political action, (2) move and travel without restriction, (3) privacy within spheres of activities not properly public, (4) immunity from being under surveillance, and (4) marry, establish a family, and raise children.

Yet, that promise has yet to be fulfilled. How many of these rights do Blacks – and other minorities in the United States – truly have? Have you seen these rights be violated in recent weeks?

The answers are, for me, slightly elusive – I am not Black, nor am I a lawyer. So I cannot fully comment. But from my own personal observations, throughout life and especially in the last few months, these rights seem nearly forgotten by those in power. Instead, Blacks have been met with systemic discrimination and violence, sometimes in blatant abuse or violation of state or federal laws, and oftentimes perpetuated by the very individuals sworn to protect personal rights.

Hence, this moment. The protests for Black Lives Matter. The outrage over Juneteenth being nearly forgotten, when it should be a national holiday. The ongoing fight for the civil rights, which have only been incrementally granted to Blacks (and other races) since 1866. The most sweeping of these Acts came in 1964, when the Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin (but only by federal and state governments and some public places). Further acts prohibited discrimination in housing (1968) and provided the right to trial by jury on discrimination claims (1991). Yet to date, no Act nor Constitutional Amendment has guaranteed the full human rights of all Americans, and especially Blacks and other minorities.

However, the Ninth Amendment states that the list of rights enumerated in the Constitution is not exhaustive, and that the people retain all rights not enumerated. This has paved the way for numerous Constitutional Amendments. In 1965, the Amendment was believed to be a positive affirmation that rights not enumerated in the Constitution could be protected by other provisions, such as Acts or laws.

“The language and history of the Ninth Amendment reveal that the Framers of the Constitution believed that there are additional fundamental rights, protected from governmental infringement, which exist alongside those fundamental rights specifically mentioned in the first eight constitutional amendments…”

Justice Goldberg, Griswold v. Connecticut

Though that interpretation was from a case about the right to use contraception as a matter of personal privacy, various interpretations of the Ninth Amendment make it clear that the writers of the Constitution, and the first Congress, recognized that it was nearly impossible to write a full list of human rights. They also knew that rights could change as society changed, something they experienced in their own lifetimes (which were during the Enlightenment period). Thus, the Ninth Amendment paves a way to assert human rights for all Americans through various laws, Acts, or Constitutional Amendments. And yet, to date, the United States has not enacted such provisions on a national level.

So today, on Juneteenth, we need to talk about Blacks Lives Matter. Because they do. As do Indigenous and other people of color. They have all been marginalized by the very country that was explored, settled, and built on promises of personal freedom and freedom from tyranny (though settlers tyrannized Indigenous peoples). Every day, Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) experience tyranny from neighbors, colleagues, employers, government officials, and others. It has led to the deaths of countless lives. And it is ingrained in our daily lives.

So what can we do to help Black Lives Matter? As a white, privileged girl, my first steps are twofold. First, to continue reading and absorbing texts written by BIPOC authors about their experiences and how we can talk about race and racial injustice, and to follow their recommendations in reflecting on and changing my own actions. Second, to reflect every day on moments where I could have been more supportive, and to do better the next day. I work with BIPOC girls around the world and encounter BIPOC individuals nearly every day. I make the pledge to not only find ways to be more supportive, but to actively listen to them, engage with them, and acknowledge that my privilege empowers me to help amplify BIPOC voices while actively seeking to converse with my white neighbors, colleagues, and friends in helping them realize how they perpetuate racism and invite them to change their behavior. It doesn’t seem like much, but it is a start. One long, long, long overdue.

Ready to join me? Reading recommendations from our team include:

  • Stamped From The Beginning by Ibram X
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  • Our podcast interview with Lisa Lamson about Black girlhood.
  • Why Breonna Taylor Matters, from HistorianSpeaks, a platform amplifying Black historian voices.
  • This New York Times Opinion piece by contributing writer Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.
  • The Lemonade Syllabus, a resource of over 200 works that specifically speak to Black women and explore the essence of Black girlhood and womanhood in historical and contemporary manifestations.
  • The #1000BlackGirlBooks Reading List, created in partnership with GrassROOTS Community Foundation.

By choosing to celebrate the last place in the South that freedom touched — reflecting the mystical glow of history and lore, memory and myth, as Ralph Ellison evoked in his posthumous novel, Juneteenth — we remember the shining promise of emancipation, along with the bloody path America took by delaying it and deferring fulfillment of those simple, unanticipating words in Gen. Granger’s original order No. 3: that “This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.” 

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

-Tiffany Rhoades, Program Developer

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