This Juneteenth, Let's Talk About Black Women's Liberation
Why are Black women still waiting for the true liberation they deserve?
After 156 years, it’s happened: On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, celebrated around the country. The day celebrates a historic moment. On June 19, 1865, two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas received word of their freedom — the last to do so. Years later, Black Americans continue to gather on June 19, aka “Juneteenth,” in order to commemorate this day of liberation. And in 2020, as protests against police brutality and anti-Black racism took off across the country, white America began to take note of the celebrations they had overlooked.
But as we look to the future, we cannot properly honor Juneteenth without intentionally recognizing the vast, overlooked contributions that Black women continue to make to the Black freedom struggle. Juneteenth celebrates freedom from injustice and oppression, but it’s also an opportunity to reflect on liberation as a whole. And I ask myself, why are Black women still waiting for the full liberation we deserve?
In college, I took a course called “African American Women’s History.” Every week I listened with awe as my professor illuminated the overlooked history of Black women's activism and the perils of our realities under white supremacy. We spoke of and celebrated women who were poets, activists, and spiritual leaders. I learned about how Black women, even in the midst of the Middle Passage and slavery, dreamed of and created a better world. It further illuminated for me how Black women’s history is so often distorted and half-told.
[Black women] are not supported when our ideas challenge the status quo of America.
America’s political history is marked by fleeting acknowledgment of Black women’s labor. Following the 2020 elections, Black women were largely credited with the political organizing that spurred Democrats to victory in the presidential and congressional races, particularly in states like Georgia, which have actively worked to prevent Black women’s political influence. In response to these historic victories, people publicly shared their appreciation for Black women on Twitter, and many of these tweets enthusiastically recognized Stacey Abrams, in particular, for her transformational political work in Georgia. And yet, barely five months later, Georgia passed a bill that would make it harder for Black people to vote in the state. A Democratic president, and Democrats in the U.S. Senate, were no protection from this step back on rights. Meanwhile, Black women face steep obstacles when running for office. We are valorized for our political organizing, but precluded from accessing the power to alter the policies that are harming us.
Black women are celebrated when our activism results in political power shifts that benefit white liberals. We are not supported, however, when our ideas challenge the status quo of America. In May 2021, it was revealed that Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure at the University of North Carolina as a result of her groundbreaking 1619 Project. Jones’ project offers a retelling of American History, one that centers the truth of the Black experience in relationship to colonialism and slavery. Her work has since been relentlessly attacked as unpatriotic. America exploits Black women’s labor but silences our stories. Our truths are misconstrued as violent when we are the ones who are dying. Our bodies are political war zones. We are in desperate need of reprieve.
When Black women organize, it is not to insulate and maintain the power of one political party, but rather to gain basic protections and basic rights that will enable us to live better and fuller lives. Black women do not need cheerleaders or flattery, we need allies and partners who will return our investment in them with an investment in us.
Even as we lend our strength to political systems, they continue to disenfranchise and abuse Black women. Black women continue to die at three times the rate of white women during childbirth, according to the CDC, and the increasing prevalence of state-level abortion bans disproportionately impacts Black women. Gynecological care is already a site of trauma for Black women: Even beyond our alarmingly high maternal death rate, we have been forcefully sterilized and experimented on. Compared to white men, Black women make, on average, 38% less in wages and face a 90% wealth gap. These kinds of disadvantages are compounded for Black queer women, trans women, and non-binary people, and even combined with additional threats of violence and harm. Tragically, Black trans women are murdered at astronomical rates due to anti-Blackness and transmisogyny.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further revealed the ways in which Black women are rendered vulnerable and unprotected in the United States. Through the pandemic, Black women have been more likely to be essential workers, more likely to live in zip codes that leave them vulnerable to bad health outcomes, and, yes, more likely to die from COVID — at three times the rate of white men. And when it comes to state-sanctioned violence, like that highlighted by 2020’s anti-police brutality protests, Black women are 1.4 times more likely to be killed by police than white women, and are more vulnerable to sexual assault by police. Black women do not organize for fame or applause, we organize because America is killing us, both indirectly as a result of problematic policy and directly as a result of systemic violence.
Black women today are creating the framework of how we will think about liberation tomorrow.
Black women have been telling America what we need for decades, but no one has been listening. In 1977, the Combahee River Collective, a Black feminist lesbian socialist organization, released a statement that spoke specifically to the needs of Black women, who are exposed to the pain of both racism and sexism. The statement, which has become famous as a groundwork for Black, feminist organizing, was radical in centering the political, social, and economic needs of Black women. Notably, the Combahee River Collective also created the term “identity politics,” which has now entered the mainstream lexicon. It’s a reminder that the personal is political, and that identity is never separated from the policies that impact us. It’s also a harbinger for the potential future of ideological phrases like Defund the Police, a slogan also championed by Black women. Black women today are creating the framework of how we will think about liberation tomorrow.
Black women’s lives depend on solidarity and collective movement. We need people to show up for us the way we show up for them: with fearless fortitude and steadfast justice. This Juneteenth, consider supporting organizations such as the Nap Ministry, which promotes radical rest, and 4Kira4Moms, a nonprofit that advocates reforms concerning Black women’s reproductive health care.
Juneteenth is a pivotal moment in the tapestry of Black liberation. As we celebrate the lives and voices of those who have paved the way, we must center both the contributions and ongoing needs of Black women. Black women are essential to Black liberation. We are integral to the collective liberation of all oppressed peoples, but we are not reservoirs of resilience. We need rest, care, allyship, and solidarity. Black women need a new sociopolitical landscape, one that allows us to exist freely from subjugation and oppression. I want Black women to know that they can protect their time, energy, and spirit. A truly liberated world is one in which Black women are celebrated not just for our activism and our labor, but for our softness, empathy, and humanity. I dream of a world that is gentle to us.