Next week we will honor Juneteenth, a commemoration of Black liberation and the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans 158 years ago. Now a federal holiday, Juneteenth has long been celebrated by Black communities as the anniversary of the order that proclaimed emancipation for enslaved people in Texas.
In her memoir, “On Juneteenth,” historian Annette Gordon-Reed recalls growing up as a Black girl in Texas in the 1960s. The great-granddaughter of an enslaved woman, Gordon-Reed experienced both the positive transformations brought on by the Civil Rights Movement and the ugliness of the deep-seated racism that rose in opposition to the fight for equality. She explores the complexity of living within this duality and concludes:
“Abstract notions of the United States…of Texas…don’t capture why places are worthy of love. When asked…what I love about Texas, given all that I know of what has happened there – and is still happening there – the best response I can give is that this is where my first family and connections were…Texas is where my mother’s boundless dreams for me took flight. It’s also where I learned to think that people could, and should, try in whatever way they can, to make life better for others alive today and for those to come.”
Juneteenth celebrates a transformational event in American history, a period when our nation moved closer to the realization of the abstract notion of equality. That movement is worthy of celebration not only for the sake of the human lives it touched, but for the sake of the promise that such progress holds for the future.
Oppression is not safely in the past — it persists in the systems and structures that form our society and in the actions of people who are determined to preserve those systems. Indeed, in Texas and in other states, we are witnessing a retreat from diversity, equity and inclusion. It brings to mind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s reflection that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Juneteenth is our shared opportunity to help create that bend by leaning in to our society’s capacity for change. It’s a way of acknowledging that we can embrace those parts of our society that embody our highest aspirations for equity, justice and inclusion, while also continuing to work for change that is urgently needed. Like Gordon-Reed, we can incorporate these competing ideas by pursuing our dreams and working to make life better for others today and tomorrow.
This is the public mission that is animated by our core values at the University of Washington: to create access to opportunity and to make the world better for others and for future generations. Equity and inclusion are deeply embedded in this mission, and I am so grateful for the extraordinary work happening across our institutions and throughout our Husky community to realize that vision.