June 20, 2012

Milwaukee Courier

Juneteenth

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

This last Tuesday was Juneteenth Day, the annual commemoration of emancipation. This holiday was first celebrated in Texas. More than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, enslaved African Americans in Texas had yet to receive the news of freedom. On June 19th, 1965, the last black Americans were finally released from forced bondage.

Although Juneteenth has been a state holiday in Texas since 1890, it had remained officially unrecognized in Wisconsin until last year, when Juneteenth became a state holiday in Wisconsin thanks to legislation introduced by myself and my fellow Milwaukee senator Spencer Coggs.

I am incredibly proud of this legislation. Juneteenth Day had been recognized in over half of the states before Wisconsin had decided to officially participate. Our participation was far overdue. One can hardly be surprised when black representation in our democratic political system has been so underwhelming.

It is hard to believe that I am only the fifth black state senator in Wisconsin's history, and only the second black woman! How can we expect even the African American community's most minor concerns to be addressed when we have so rarely been allowed the chance to elect our own people to positions of influence?

With luck, June 19th will one day be celebrated as a national holiday, a second independence day at which our nation came closer to fulfilling the promise of the first. When the population of our legislatures looks like the population of our country, I believe we will be that much closer. Even today, we have ways to go before the people of every race and economic class can be said to have shared in the fullness of the American Dream.

Our Juneteenth celebrations in Milwaukee have been legendary.  I was lucky enough to take part in the Juneteenth Day Parade.  The night after, I spent time reflecting on the holiday and its evolving importance in the African American community. 

To this day, I believe in the importance of celebrating African American freedom.  I believe that in order to celebrate, we must also promote that freedom.  Black people were not freed from the bonds of oppression after the end of slavery.  Nor did the civil rights won back in the 1950’s and 1960’s bring absolute freedom.

Today, African Americans still feel left behind.  While I put faith in Dr. King’s supposition that history arcs slowly towards justice, we have been shown time and time again that society-at-large responds slowly to our needs.  On the other hand, we have often been able to rely on our own community.

Not discounting the importance of a more universal justice, we can celebrate and promote African-American freedom by working towards specific goals.  We can achieve these goals in Milwaukee.  I would say that we could start today, but there is little need.  For years, many of our best men and women have been working towards better education, fair elections, and black achievements in business. 

As men and women of color, we build our own families, neighborhoods, and businesses while continuing to engage with the nation’s political life.  Every day, we balance the visions Juneteenth Day and the Fourth of July.  We celebrate both and live our lives accordingly.