CULTURE

17 New Yorkers on the Meaning of Juneteenth

A person showing off a tattoo that reads "Black excellence"
Photo by Souls in Focus

On June 19, 1865, roughly two months after the end of the Civil War (and over two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation), Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, where they informed the enslaved African Americans there that they were finally free. The date, also known as Freedom Day, would go on to be celebrated by Americans for over a century thereafter. But it wasn’t until last June that President Joe Biden declared Juneteenth a federal holiday to commemorate the end of slavery so that “all Americans can feel the power of this day, and learn from our history, and celebrate progress,” he said.

This year, the Brooklyn Museum held its second annual Honor Juneteenth celebration inviting New Yorkers to celebrate Black liberation, community, and creativity with a full day of activities. Events ranged from poetry readings to a performance by Brown Sugar Bounce to a sound bath, all organized in partnership with the Culture LP. Guests were also encouraged to sit for community portraits with Souls in Focus, the Brooklyn-based artist collective made up of Sade Fasanya, Henry Danner, Natiah Jones, and Naeem Douglas.

But just as the new holiday brings more formal celebrations across the nation, it also urges more progress be made toward racial equity and reckoning with America’s past. Here, 17 attendees share their personal thoughts on the historic day.

Photo by Souls in Focus

“For me, it means Black people feeling free to be 100 percent authentically ourselves. A lot of times we don’t feel like we can be ourselves or say what we want to say because we’re in spaces where it’s either not welcomed or we don’t see people who look like us or maybe speak like us. I grew up in Maine, and I always felt that I had to be more quiet. Once I moved to New York and I was actually around people who looked like me—body, hair, style, skin color, swag, all of that—it really helped me feel not just accepted, but also comfortable in my skin.” —Anastacia, 30

Photo by Souls in Focus

“To me? [Juneteenth] means almost everything. [Laughs.] It’s the holiday I know that our ancestors—my ancestors—took and fought for. And we finally at a place where it’s our freedom—even though we even really ain’t. But I’m grateful that it’s a day that’s being recognized as a holiday. It’s been going on for years, and now people are involved in it more than ever. I work for the board of elections, and I made sure everybody on my staff [at the museum registering early electors] had a [Juneteenth] shirt.” —Royal Rose, “63 wise”

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“For me, it’s a way to have my kids connect with history and understand not only how we celebrate, but also to understand what our people came from. I wanted to bring them here because Juneteenth is a brand new celebration for most people, and to have them understand that even though laws have been passed to free us, people aren’t always straightforward. So it’s not all celebration. I want them to know our full history and that we’ve come a long way.” —Michael, 56

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“Juneteenth means a warm embrace from Black culture.” —Imani, 20

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“It’s an acknowledgment of a lot of the struggle for Black people in America in the past 400 years. A signal and a sign to use as motivation to progress and to make things better for the future, for future generations.” —Kenny, 30

Photo by Souls in Focus

“Of course freedom—or the thought of freedom. We’ve always been trying to gain this sense of what freedom is. But more than freedom, we should be looking for sovereignty. So I think Juneteenth signifies a symbol of sovereignty and liberation.” —Craig, 32

Photo by Souls in Focus

“It’s a representation of triumph and victory, after a lot of oppression and setbacks and discouragement. There’s always sunshine on the other side of that.” —Kayah, 22

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“To me, Juneteenth means freedom of expression. Of creativity.” —Dorian, 30

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“I’m from Antigua, so it took me a while to realize that slavery, racism, all of this was a real thing in America until I moved here. To me, it means that I am more alike the community of Black people than I believed. There’s more alikeness within us, and not just the color of our skin—who we are as people.” —Rashida, 29

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“I mean, it’s just so commercialized [now]. I mean, I don’t even think about how to make an impact at work, in a predominantly white space. I just want to do my own thing. I just wanna be around Black folk. [Laughs.] Just to be here for Black folks’ sake. The African diaspora is vast, so there’s even a spectrum within Black people. You’ve got people from Africa, people from the Caribbean, people with the African American experience. Juneteenth is really that true African American experience—a true celebration of it and everything we’ve overcome. And really, just celebrating everything we are. Black is beautiful—that’s what it really means.” —Marcus, 28

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“It’s a real celebration for people of color. I think a lot of Black America is really thought to think in the way of crabs in a barrel. And the reverse—when people really come together to do what they do—is super important.” —Marshall, 30

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“It means a time to see my people be at their highest, most beautiful selves—just free to be themselves. And community. Everyone comes out, and that’s what I love.” —Annie, 35

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“[Juneteenth] means acknowledging my ancestors. It means perception of freedom. It means preparation for freedom. That’s what it means for me.” —Eyma, 68 (left)

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“Juneteenth means coming together. I’m not from New York—I’m from a smaller town [in North Carolina], and there aren’t a lot of Black people that get to come together and show their talent and all those things, so it’s really a coming together time for me.” —Jayahna, 19

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“Pretty simple: Libertad, which is liberation. That’s it.” —Amia, 105 [Laughs.] (left)

“Juneteenth is the celebration of when the last slaves found out they were free, and how it aligns with the summer solstice is symbolic for me. It symbolizes coming out of a dark time and into something brand new: freshness, freedom, brightness.” —Janeva, 41 (right)

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“When I think about Juneteenth, of course I think about freedom. But I also think about the hard work of my ancestors and how important it is to commemorate them beyond the holiday now becoming commercialized. I think of sacredness. I think of pride. And I think of humility. Those are some of the things that it means to me, but it means so much more on a deeper level—spiritually, mentally, emotionally. So I’m just grateful to be here to celebrate.” —Lydia, 33