Editor’s Note: In recognition of the fact that many 2U employees will be taking Volunteer Time Off (VTO) or Paid Time Off (PTO) to celebrate Juneteenth, we have chosen to publish this article a day early.
“Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that.
“Someday we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally into you.” - Dr. Maya Angelou
In December of 2013, I dialed 911 because I needed immediate medical attention. While I was on the phone with the dispatcher, I sat in the front room of my new home. I opened the front door before anyone arrived and was sure that both of my hands were visible. My little Yorkie, Douglass, sat next to me on the couch while we waited for an ambulance. I was greeted by a white police officer who immediately yelled, put his gun in my back, and pushed my face into my living room wall. I could see the fear in his eyes. He was afraid of me. I was even more afraid of him.
I tell this story because it’s time for me to tell it. It’s time for Black people to tell our stories so that we can build on the foundation that our ancestors laid for us. My story could have ended that day. But I went on to fully recover, earn a doctorate degree, and grow my family. I went on tour and thrived as an artist. Despite the grief, I emerged resiliently.
In many ways, that is the story of people of African descent in America: resiliency despite the grief.
Juneteenth is a reminder that, while Black history didn’t start with slavery, African American history has undeniably been influenced by the tenacity, bravery, and resilience of the earliest Africans in our country who were physically, mentally, and legislatively enslaved. For my family, Juneteenth is our special Independence Day. We use this day each year to celebrate and tell stories about the incredible strength of African people in America. This celebration is not without grief, anger, and sadness. But it’s despite that grief that we strive to take the lead from our ancestors and use our negative emotions as fuel to overcome institutionalized oppression and racism.
Storytelling has been essential to preserving African history and cultures. When millions of Africans were kidnapped and relocated to America, literacy was illegal. Africans were stripped of everything, separated from their communities, and intentionally intermingled with other stolen Africans who did not speak the same languages. Yet, their history could not be erased because the stories of African people persisted. Today, as their descendants, we still sing songs and tell their stories. We write new stories and songs and use those to teach their children and renew our souls.
This year, Juneteenth comes at one of the most difficult moments in American history. African Americans are faced with the reality that history continues to repeat itself in this country. African Americans are still being murdered and lynched in front of their children, still receiving disproportionate medical care. African Americans did not have a chance to grieve the thousands of our race who died at greater rates as a result of COVID-19 before being thrust into more trauma. And many African Americans face discrimination and oppression every day and from other institutions. Regardless, African Americans continue to rise. We persist. We continue to tell our stories.
This year, we collectively grieve the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Riah Milton, and countless other innocent Black people. We are also reminded of the importance of telling their stories. We protest for change and we find ways to continue to grow recognition of the systemic racism that led to their deaths through storytelling.
By sharing my story, I have chosen not to be muted. Tomorrow, on Juneteenth, I encourage Black people to continue to share their stories and use the day to empower themselves. And I encourage allies to listen and amplify the voices that they hear. To get you started, here are a few ideas for how to celebrate Juneteenth and encourage a better future.
- Tell your stories and empower others to tell their stories. Consider hosting a multigenerational video call with your loved ones to share stories of resilience and freedom over a good meal from a Black-owned restaurant.
- Raise awareness through donations and/or volunteering with an organization that promotes social justice and serves the Black community. Don’t forget to buy Black, too!
- Start that podcast you’ve been dreaming about launching.
- Call your grandparents, aunts, and uncles to listen to their stories. Take notes or record the conversation to capture history for future generations. Think about what we can learn from the generations that came before us.
- Attend a virtual or in-person Juneteenth celebration and invite a friend! Don’t forget to practice social distancing.
- Create a pact with your friends that you will actively seek to be anti-racist and continue to share the stories of others to grow understanding. Write the pact down so that you can hold each other accountable and schedule regular check-ins.
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