† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, and author of The School-to- Prison Pipeline: Education, Discipline and Racialized Double Standards, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice and Considering Hate, is co-founder of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
The Meaning of Juneteenth in the 21st Century
Guest Post By Kimya N. Dennis, Ph.D.
Editors Note: We at CI regularly consider the prison industrial complex as the after-life of slavery, extended by that Thirteenth Amendment loophole — “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” – that allows its’ perpetuation. Today, just past the annual Juneteenth celebrations, Professor Kimya Dennis considers too the meaning of emancipation.
Some national and international communities annually celebrate Juneteenth. Juneteenth is part of Black/African American/African diaspora history, national history, and world history. A quick overview of the history of Juneteenth is the Emancipation Proclamation declared slaves to be freed in 1863. It was not until 1865 that slaves in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation and of their freedom. The Emancipation Proclamation is celebrated. The end of slavery is celebrated. We are thankful for the end to the enslavement, dehumanization, and abuse of humans in this capacity. That does not, however, mean Blacks/African Americans/African diaspora must say “thank you” to whites or be forever grateful and indebted to whites. As with other enslavements, genocides, ethnic cleansings, and forced assimilations in the history of humanity, the TransAtlantic slave trade should have never happened.
The majority of slaves were from the continent of Africa. Africans were stolen from their land as well as sold by fellow African natives. Relatively less common was the enslavement and indentured servitude of European ethnicities. There are theoretical and historical explanations for the TransAtlantic slave trade including Marxian perspective of economic advantage and power in pursuit of profit that targets less dominant-powerful groups that can be sold; and prejudice-hate-based victimization of the African continent and particular European ethnicities-cultures.
It is important to understand the TransAtlantic slave trade and the experiences of slaves in North America and South America. This is correlated with the factors that influence the lives of Blacks/African Americans/African diaspora around the world. “Get over it” and “that was years ago” are common responses when people discuss TransAtlantic slavery. Such responses tend to come from a place of privilege and tend not to grasp how all humans are shaped by historical and contemporary incidents and experiences. Despite centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, Civil Rights Era, “segregation by force”, and contextual “segregation by choice”, Blacks/African Americans are considered integrated into North America and assimilated (as much as reasonably possible) into mainstream culture or aspects of “whiteness”. It is, therefore, considered unreasonable that Blacks/African Americans and people of the immediate African diaspora are still discussing slavery and there are overt and covert impacts of slavery on the people’s lives.
This should not be confused with Blacks/African Americans/African diaspora being consumed with, and unable to overcome, the ongoing impact of slavery and overall oppression. There is a common belief that Blacks/African Americans/African diaspora are strong and resilient. This is linked to traditional and rather conservative views among Blacks/African Americans/African diaspora regarding faith and religion, family, race and ethnicity, and gender. This is contrary to what is often depicted of Blacks/African Americans/African diaspora as immoral and uncontrollable, mindlessly reproducing, and chronically unemployed with broken households and overall social disorganization.
Perceived strength and resilience are conducive to pressure and stress. When individuals and communities are told for generations that they are strong and resilient it leads to an often unrealistic expectation. People are told to withstand any obstacle regardless of what happens in their lives, communities, society, and the world. When people and communities are unable to withstand, there is silence and shaming because struggles and the need for assistance are often considered weak and in need of being kept private. Black/African American/African diaspora mental health is one area in which there should not be silence, shaming, perceived weakness, or issues being kept private. Individuals and communities need access to resources and information. Individuals and communities also need to utilize resources and information provided to communities.
Most Blacks/African Americans/African diaspora have limited access, or no access, to generational medical records and family history. Biological families have been divided over the centuries for reasons including TransAtlantic slavery. Not having medical records and family history makes it difficult to learn physical health and mental health for individuals and communities. In the 20th and 21st centuries most families do not have access to medical services, did not use the services to which there was access, or medical records were not kept. Most families do not discuss physical health and mental health. Generations of physical and mental health conditions are kept private by the people who know they have a condition. Many people do not know they have a condition.
On a recent Juneteenth Festival panel I discussed mental health and suicide and self-harm in Black/African American/African diaspora communities. “This is a white thing” and “this was not a problem when we were in Africa” are common responses when I do presentations and panels. There is no evidence that mental health and suicide were not prevalent on the continent of Africa prior to TransAtlantic slavery. Recent studies examine current data on mental health and suicide on the continent of Africa. During slavery, slaves died from suicide and self-harm. Suicide and self-harm were considered ways to escape conditions, gain forms of control and power over their circumstances, experience the afterlife, and self-medicate. Oral history depicts suicide and self-harm in different ways. Ebos Landing involves enslaved Igbos who were brought to Georgia and had an uprising. This story is conveyed by whites as the Igbos dying from suicide whereas the story is conveyed by former slaves and contemporary people of African diaspora as the Igbos uprising and flying into the sky and back to Africa. This is an example of how mental health and suicide can be misinterpreted, silenced, or hidden. There is tremendous difficulty breaking generations of misinterpretation, misrepresentation, and silence.
When I attend Juneteenth celebrations I am reminded of history. History should never be forgotten and history continues to influence Blacks/African Americans/African diaspora. We need to address these influences while encouraging physical health and mental health discussions and resource availability among Blacks/African Americans/African diaspora.
Kimya N. Dennis is a criminologist and sociologist with interdisciplinary research and community outreach on suicide and self-harm, mental health, and reproductive freedoms. Her work places particular emphasis on underserviced communities and Blacks/African diaspora. Kimya is a member of the Board of Directors for The Mental Health Association in Forsyth County; North Carolina chapter of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; and LEAD Girls of NC.