Reflecting on Juneteenth: ‘There's a lot that we still need to do as a state’

  • Howard Gospel Choir of Howard University performed in New Hampshire in honor of Juneteenth this year. —Courtesy

  • Community members participating in street art to commemorate Juneteenth in Portsmouth. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 6/24/2022 2:19:06 PM

Days before their Juneteenth observances, members of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire took to Twitter to criticize the commercialization of the nation’s newest federal holiday.

They highlighted a photo of a “Celebration Edition” of Juneteenth Ice Cream  – swirled red velvet and cheesecake – that used the red, green and yellow colors on its packaging commonly associated with Pan-Africanism, a movement that seeks to unify common struggle and goals of Black individuals with African heritage.

“It's just a constant ‘we're just going to do this because it will sell’ and not really understanding the impact, not understanding the meaning behind it,” said Selina Choate, the vice president of Black Heritage Trail’s board.  “It's the complete erasure of a whole people of cultures. That is not right and continues to breed ignorance and the idea that it's okay to misappropriate Black culture and Black identity.”

Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, marks the day when Black slaves in Galvaston, Texas, found out they were free in 1865 – two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

“Last year, when Juneteenth became a federal holiday, many in Black communities predicted that it would turn into another moment for large corporations to make money,” the online messages read. “This year as we look at the Juneteenth packaging of institutions as varied as Walmart…it highlights just how out of touch white-owned corporations and non-profits continue to be when it comes to the nuances of Black people’s life experiences.”

Kevin Pajaro-Mariñez, the co-leader for diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice at Black Lives Matter Seacoast saw the commercialization of the day as corporate hypocrisy. He has seen countless examples of businesses changing social media and marketing campaigns to promote Juneteenth, but finds the messages insincere.

“You can profit off of Blackness without actually ever having to be committed to ending the things or addressing the systemic discrepancies that cause Black people to suffer on a daily basis,” he said. “And I think that's where the misalignment is for me around corporations and organizations touting Juneteenth as if they're champions of Black people. It just feels really empty.”

A more robust conversation about Juneteenth and what it represents is overdue, especially in New Hampshire, where such discussions were the target of a new state law.  

In 2021, Republican lawmakers attempted to pass a bill that would have banned teaching about certain themes like systemic racism, which were deemed “divisive concepts.” The bill failed to pass, but a revised version of the legislation was included in HB2, which was approved as part of the state budget process. Now called the “Right to Freedom from Discrimination” in education law, it prohibits teaching that people are inherently superior, oppressive or racist because of “immutable characteristics” such as race, gender or sexual orientation. Critics of the law say it has put a chill on classroom discussions about historical racism, sexism and other discrimination. 

“We as a state are committed to making sure that folks do not learn about baseline strategies to humanize marginalized groups. What folks miss is that Juneteenth was tied to things like slavery, so to acknowledge slavery would mean to have a real conversation about the suffering that Black people went through back then and even now,” Pajaro-Mariñez said. “There are many different barriers Black people face, and yet we're passing legislation that doesn't allow us to talk candidly about the reality that Black people face and how things from the past are still connected to the present.”

Gov. Chris Sununu, who has defended the law as it faces a court challenge, recognized Juneteenth on social media this past weekend.

“Today we celebrate Juneteenth, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States,” Sununu tweeted. “Pleased to have once again officially proclaimed today as Juneteenth Day in the State of New Hampshire in celebration of African American freedom and achievement!”

Sununu’s proclamation doesn’t recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday, but rather an observance day.

“On one end we observe it, but then on the other end we have HB2,”  Choate said. “It's like, wait a minute, now what's going to have the most impact on our society? Especially when we can't educate or talk about certain things because it's against the law. You're not helping when we're not able to speak the truth about certain situations and break the systems of oppression.”

New Hampshire – the last state in the nation to create a holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and where 93% of the population is white – can be slow to recognize racial complexities.  

A recent series of reports by the Concord Monitor and Granite State News Collaborative examined the use of pretextual stops, the practice of police officers pulling over cars for speculative reasons rather than significant traffic violations. Among the findings: these stops disproportionately targeted Black and Latino drivers.

State police officials denied officers were racially profiling drivers and were noncommittal about ending the practice led primarily by its Mobile Enforcement Team (MET), a state trooper’s drug interdiction unit.

Choate fears reports like these will continue to be excluded from educational programs and schools because of the “Freedom from Discrimination” law. As a result, the state as a whole will become more ignorant and its citizens will lack the knowledge needed to contextualize systemic racism.

“I think we're going down a path where the next generations are not going to know about what happened in this country and how it impacted and impacts so many lives. Then when things do happen, like what happened to George Floyd, it may not matter because they don't know their history,” she said. “They don't know this system of white supremacy that has continued trying to keep Black people in line in this country through some form of oppression.”

To avoid that outcome, Choate believes New Hampshire needs to invest in the understanding of Black culture and the Black experience through education and organizations. Learning about past injustices is imperative in not repeating those same mistakes in the future.

“That's why the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire is so important, because we are a nonprofit organization that is actively and intentionally trying to do the work of educating people in New Hampshire about the contributions and the lives of Black people,” she said. “It's sad when we say there's not a lot of Black people or when people make the assumption that just because there aren't a lot of Black people that we don’t make any contributions to the state or that we weren't here for centuries. It's a continuous erasure of Black culture and of Black people in the state.”

While the recognition of Juneteenth is a move in the right direction, it is clear to Choate that her work is far from finished.

“The Black Heritage Trail is going to continue to promote Black culture and continue to unveil the stories of Black people here in this state, but we can't do it alone,” she said. “We have to be able to get into those schools and help educators and teachers appropriately talk about this kind of content in a way that’s going to be effective and not allow people to linger in a space where they don't really quite understand it. There's a lot that we still need to do as a state. There's so much that we still need to do.”

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