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During our recent observance of Juneteenth following a book discussion sponsored by Kol Ami's Tzedek Council and Anti-Racism Task Force, Board Member Yaffa Hughes offered a reflection on the history and resonance of Juneteenth for African Americans in the United States. We are grateful for her teaching and for sharing about her experience, it is a powerful message for all of us.

Juneteenth: A Celebration of Freedom

Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom as well as a sacred, bittersweet holiday. It is a holiday for all Americans to commemorate freedom and the untold lives that were, as well as, families destroyed in bondage. It is also a time to honor Black American culture, emancipation and enduring hope.
On July 4th 1776, Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, which we know as America’s Independence Day. We celebrate the colonies gaining independence from Great Britain and declaring unalienable rights, which include “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and equality for all.  In this Declaration of Freedom, slavery was purposely not mentioned. Many of the founding fathers were slave holders and although they knew it was morally wrong, they were not ready & willing to free their enslaved Africans. Freedom for enslaved Africans did not arrive until a century later.
The Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863 declared that, “all persons held as slaves… are henceforward, shall be free.” Former enslaved Africans were now considered freed. However, the Emancipation Proclamation freed only slaves held in the eleven Confederate states that had seceded from the Union. Lincoln’s proclamation did not end slavery entirely. Slaveholding border states had not been freed.
On January 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th amendment that abolished slavery as an institution in all the U.S. states and territories. Enslavers decided to ignore the new law that freed their enslaved Africans and withheld the information from them; they argued that they needed the labor for the harvest. 
Two and half years later, after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, on June 19, 1865, federal troops marched into Galveston, TX to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved Africans were freed. Celebrations broke out among newly freed Black people and the holiday Juneteenth was born. June 19 has since become a day of celebration. It was initially observed quietly at first, as a day of reflection, so as to not inflame former slaveholders. For many years it was a day that African Americans observed within themselves.
On April 19, 2021, President Biden formally signed legislation which established Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Many black Americans did not think that this day would become a Federal Holiday, but thanks to activist Opal Lee, the “grandmother of Juneteenth,” many refused to give up the fight of seeing this day recognized as a holiday.
While millions of Black Americans mark the day commemorating freedom, we also must acknowledge that many are still fighting for their freedom. Juneteenth did not end slavery. The 13th Amendment formally, abolished slavery, “except as punishment for a crime.”  Those five words, “except as punishment for a crime,” carved out exceptions that still allowed slavery, and continues to enable incarcerated people to be used as free and forced labor.
Those five words have paved the way for excessive mass incarceration, particularly for Black American men, women, and children and these laws still exist today. These prisoners are forgotten, their rights are taken away, and their time served is inhumane.
While many Americans walk freely assured they have protection and guaranteed rights, many Black Americans, myself included, are very aware we are often excluded from these rights. Freedom is a thought that I mentally reflect on while being in public. We teach this to our children. I am preconditioned to be aware of my surroundings. When driving, walking, shopping, walking my or being in environments where others may question my presence. 

The infection of white supremacy has penetrated our country so deeply, that no aspect of Black lives are not scrutinized or held in suspicion. I do not live in fear, but I have been and know I can be detained at any time. Juneteenth did not end racism.
I am thankful for times of rest & reflection, and times to just breathe. Shabbat gives me that time on which to direct my thoughts, prayers and actions toward God. It is more than a time of rest, it is a sacred day to be spent in worship and reverence. It helps me to allow my mind to ponder spiritual matters and a world of freedom for us all. While Havdalah marks the end of Shabbat, it is also a symbol of a new beginning. A time to look ahead for a new week, a sign that the time to begin creating again, has arrived, a time of enduring hope. 

~Alesha Yaffa Ru’ahh Hughes
Wed, June 19 2024 13 Sivan 5784