Juneteenth Reflections: Grief Work is Freedom Work
Juneteenth has become a nationally recognized holiday in the absence of substantive change.
by Julia Mallory
“…but in them days they wasn’t no time for mournin.’ ”
—Mary Reynolds, Texas Slave Narratives Volume XVI Part III
Juneteenth began as a day of celebration commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas on June 19th, 1866. Since then, it has offered Black folks an opportunity to remember and honor our ancestors who were enslaved. Juneteenth also operates on the fact that full freedom and autonomy remain an ongoing pursuit for Black folks.
The late writer and poet June Jordan wrote, “some of us have not died. To live means you owe something big to those whose lives are taken away from them.” I return to this quote often. For me, “something big” is not simply expressed in educational achievement, entrepreneurial success, or other “trackable” accomplishments. It is not about what we’ve acquired but how well we care for ourselves and each other.
More specifically, if we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams, shouldn’t those dreams include the ability to grieve? How might Juneteenth provide us the space to explore what we “owe” to our ancestors and ourselves through grief work?
On June 19th, 1865 when General Gordon Granger arrived in Texas with word and enforcement of emancipation, he decreed that formerly enslaved Black people should remain “quietly” where they were and serve as employees. They were expected to passively transition to a new reality without reckoning with its very foundation. I read “quietly” as a directive to not do anything that would further complicate the social order. There was to be no outrage, no outward grieving, no disruption to the world around them.
In addition to being advised to remain “quietly” in relationship with their former owners in the decree, I am struck by Granger informing them that they would “not be supported in idleness.” Yet, the ability to move on one’s own timing is a mark of true freedom. It was not unheard of for Black people that were formerly enslaved to labor under nearly identical conditions. In addition to labor, there were communities to build, rights to fight for, loved ones to locate. Did they have time to rest, to not be perceived as lazy? Did they have the time and space to grieve?
It is not lost on me the parallel between the Black past and Black present, as a similar reality persists for too many of us during the current pandemic. The rush to return to normalcy without reckoning with the level of monumental loss we have experienced is not new. Much of our grief goes unexpressed because of the range of emotions it evokes, for example how often is our rage pacified with premature calls for forgiveness or “moving on.” There remains an ongoing rush to resilience without reconciling the conditions from which we seek to recover.
Juneteenth has become a nationally recognized holiday in the absence of substantive change. This country has shown us repeatedly that it is unwilling to fully reckon with Black Grief, at the same time that it commits to legitimizing white grievance.
On Juneteenth, part of our inheritance among joy, among rest—can be recognizing that grief work is also freedom work and, as Renita Walker says, it is also community work. When my 17 year old son Julian transitioned from this dimension as a result of gun violence, I soon realized that part of any future peace available to me would be living out loud with my grief and not existing in emotional bondage as a result of it. As my creative cousin, Airis Smallwood says, we must reclaim our Black ass emotions. Honoring our grief is an outright refusal to operate as a slither of ourselves—rendered invisible and hypervisible. When we resist disconnection from our feelings, ourselves and each other, especially during a time of continued monumental pandemic-related loss and premature Black death, we make another world possible.
It is well documented that part of the continued dehumanizing of Black people centers on the false belief that we do not experience pain. Thomas Jefferson, former president and human trafficker, wrote in observation of Black people that were enslaved:
“their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them.”
Of course, as the source of such afflictions, he could speak to them, but he is unqualified to offer input on what they were feeling and certainly not what they remembered. How could our ancestors forget what they carried in their bones? And what generational grief are we still carrying? To be clear, honoring the sacred nature of grief may look like privacy and a refusal to publicly perform grief under extractive voyeurism. Which is not the same as engaging with systems that seek to keep us disconnected from care and each other and privatize grief to protect itself from public accountability. If we are quiet, it should be by choice. If we are not idle, it should be by choice.
In making room for our grief, we give ourselves permission to fully experience joy and rest. May we seek out community like our early ancestors. May we honor the hope that a new thing may be done in our lives. May we exist in our full truth of all and who we have lost while honing in on the possibility of what we will build and grow. On this Juneteenth, I celebrate that I am alive and aware that it is impossible to avoid my grief and be free.
Julia Mallory is a writer, teaching artist, and cultural worker. She is a six-time author, including two children’s books. Her latest book Survivor’s Guilt, is an archive of survivorship that chronicles generational grief through photographs, poetry, and prose. In addition, she is the founder of the creative literary arts brand, Black Mermaids, serves as the Senior Poetry Editor for Raising Mothers, and hosts the Stop Shrinking Socialcast. Her work can be found in Barrelhouse, Second Skin Magazine, BLK Voices Magazine, the Black Speculative Arts Movement exhibition “Curating the End of the World: RED SPRING”, and elsewhere.