Harriet Tubman, abolitionist, politician, and Union Army intelligence operative once said, “I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.”
It is Tubman’s words that I resonate with when I think of American freedom. America celebrates Independence Day every July 4 with symbolic, colorful fireworks displays. However, as the inaugural celebration took place in 1776, the day designated as the birth of the United States, there was no joy for many in the African American community. While many enslaved Africans fought alongside the colonists against the British in the Revolutionary War, the hope of freedom was a narrative that did not come to fruition. And as I reflect on this, I’m reminded how in 1619, the first enslaved Africans were forced onto the land known as the Virginia Colony to begin hell on earth.
Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, when referencing the importance and purpose of black people compared them to “the black pupil of the eye surrounded by the white. In this black pupil is seen the reflection of that which is before it, and through it the light of the spirit shines forth.”
Found within the black pupil is the divine spirit of creation that shines and provides an important balance in God’s creation of humanity. Man’s false narrative of dominance based upon melanin, eye color, and hair texture holds no credence in the divine creation of humanity.
That is spiritual truth, but history written from a Eurocentric perspective defines this time and those of African descent as less than human. What saddens me most is I did not learn the truth about black people in my formal education, I did not learn of the majesty of my ancestry and the African continent. I did not learn of the advanced civilization that taught the American colonists how to irrigate the land. I did not learn that my ancestors communicated in highly sophisticated ways that did not require words, and have always been at the forefront of language and communication.
I was taught that Africa was a place of jungles and that my ancestry represented minimal intelligence and animalistic behavior. It was — and is — this Eurocentric bigotry that provided the justification to marginalize and rewrite a false narrative to history. A history that does not acknowledge Juneteenth.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day that Union Army General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, and announced the enslaved were free.
His message was delivered some two years after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation set forth by President Abraham Lincoln. While in theory, the enslaved were free, these rules did not apply to Texas, specifically in Galveston, the birthplace of Juneteenth. This is based on a few factors:
- Two hundred fifty thousand enslaved individuals of the black community provided for the wealth of the Texas economy as unpaid labor.
- The news that Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee had surrendered took more than two months to spread to western Texas.
- The Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t enforced in Texas.
- Slavers in Texas beat, lynched, and murdered the freed black people that tried to leave plantations.
- On the first anniversary of Juneteenth, the vastly emerging segregation laws prohibited the use of public places and parks to celebrate the holiday.
And just as U.S. history has marginalized, and to much extent does not mention the many contributions of the African American community to the foundation and continuum of growth in the country, it is no surprise to me that Juneteenth is still not a national holiday. That it is not is evidence that the cancer of racism still exists in the United States — a cancer that ignited the civil rights movement, the power movement, and most recently, the Black Lives Matter movement, which all advocate for truth and justice for the black community in America.
As I reflect on my religious community, the Baha’i Faith, I see a microcosm in some respects to the many challenges in the United States. As Barbara Talley, a longtime Baha’i and visionary behind the “Pupil of the Eye” conference stated in a recent interview with Bahai.us, “The pupil is essential for light, and without the pupil the person is blind. Humanity needs this light, which only the dark people can provide.”
I feel that Juneteenth should be a celebration and national holiday with the same promotion as America’s Independence Day. Juneteenth is the symbolic representation of the ultimate sacrifice paid by the many souls who fought for freedom and justice. It is a representation of the continued struggle for all to strive and work towards in small and large efforts as Baha’u’llah explained, “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.”
We live in a time where protests are happening across the nation. I see individuals of different ethnic backgrounds marching and holding signs that say, “Black Lives Matter.” I hope these individuals know just how much the lives of black people matter. Now is the time to exemplify the true history of America. My family, spread from Texas to Mississippi, fought for freedom so that one day their descendants could have opportunities. For them I work as hard as I can each and every day as an academic, as a social justice community organizer, as a filmmaker, as a husband, as a son, and most importantly, as a world citizen of God.
The people of African descent — the Africana community — matter, and Juneteenth is a celebratory time to honor the truth of the words written so long ago: “We the People.” We are the people who built this country and continue to provide to the diversity and richness of the world.
To the Pupil of the Eye, as ordained by almighty God, you must know that you matter, your voice matters, your efforts, matter. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”