Juneteenth reverberates with triumph, pain, past and present
By Susan Kelley
The woman who answered the door brandished a hammer in one hand and a pickax in the other.
Jamila Michener thought she had the right address a few years ago when she brought her two sons, then 8 and 5, to a children’s birthday party in Ithaca. When they knocked on the front door, no one answered for a while. A woman appeared briefly then came back a few minutes later, holding up the tools as weapons. She spat out, “What do you want?”
“I thought this was a children’s birthday party,” Michener said. “It clearly is not. I am sorry. I’m getting off your property now.”
The woman continued to hold up the weapons as Michener and her boys backed away, got in their car and left.
The first thing her older son said was, “Mom, why would she treat us like that? We’re just kids.”
“Buddy, I don’t know. I don’t know what was in that woman’s heart and mind,” Michener said. “But I think there’s a good chance that she would have responded differently if there weren’t Black people in front of her house.”
That’s the kind of incident Michener, associate professor of government in the College of Arts and Sciences, recalls when she thinks about Juneteenth – a holiday celebrated June 19 to commemorate the day in 1865 when the last enslaved people in the U.S. heard they had been freed.
They had freedom, but not the social and political power they needed to influence how they lived their lives, and those threads continue to run through American society today, Michener says. They show up in national policies on criminal justice, housing and health care, to name just a few, that marginalize people of color.
“There are moments of triumph where I say, ‘Wow, my kids get to live a good life.’ We get to live in a good neighborhood, they get to be comfortable,” Michener says. “And there are moments of pain, because we still can’t just live thoughtlessly. We can’t forget that we don’t belong. That is the story of the Black experience in the U.S.”
An expert in poverty, racial inequity and public policy in the U.S., Michener teaches her students that racial and ethnic categories are not biological, but have been developed through political, economic and social processes.
Those categories don’t take into account the enormous variety of experiences and backgrounds of people pigeonholed within those categories.
For example, Juneteenth isn’t a direct part of Michener’s historical lineage within the United States. Her parents immigrated from the Caribbean and didn’t know much about U.S. history when they arrived in the 1970s. But as a Black person born in the U.S., Michener says the long-standing patterns reflected in Juneteenth have shaped her life and trajectory, and they will shape her children’s lives and trajectories. It’s one of the reasons why she talks to her kids about Juneteenth. “I want them to understand the history, I want them to have a sense of it.”
She thinks about what it must have felt like on that day for the enslaved people to hear that, suddenly, they were free. “What a triumphant moment and feeling that must have been,” she says. But then they had to figure out how to live in a society that had not been constructed for them as free people – how to have a roof over their heads, how to feed their children. That dilemma opened the door for systems of exploitation like sharecropping, and the systems of social and political segregation that followed, she says.
“There was no place for you in the economy, in the society, in politics, and it literally has taken Black people in this country hundreds of years to continue to try to carve out that place.”
Michener points to the constant stream of Black people being killed by the police, the conversations she has to have with her sons.
She and her family recently went to an outdoor barbecue at a friend’s house in an unfamiliar neighborhood, where no one knew her family. So when her son asked for the car keys to get something from their car parked on the street, her husband asked him a pointed question: “Do you remember who you are?”
“I know, I’m a brown kid,” the boy answered. “I’m not going to do anything stupid. I can’t look like I’m stealing the car, I can’t look like I’m making trouble, I can’t look out of place.”
Her son is 11.
She and her husband have been teaching him those lessons since he was 4. “Over the years, people have said ‘Oh my gosh, how can you tell your four-year-old that?’ But it’s literally life and death,” she says. “They need to know.”
Now when they go to an unfamiliar house, he says, “Are you sure it’s the right address, Mom?” He doesn’t want to ever risk going to the wrong house by accident, she says. “As he grows, he realizes the taller he gets, the bigger he gets, the more dangerous and more of a threat he looks like to people. I wish that was a weight that he didn’t have to carry.”
Her research has found that even policies designed to help people of color on the economic margins – such as Medicaid and housing policies – often end up marginalizing them further by limiting their power. Michener is a big fan of Medicaid, she says. “But the process of getting benefits like that is often racialized, it’s often alienating, it’s often stigmatizing, particularly for people of color,” she says. “You have very limited power you can exercise over those circumstances.”
For her, that connects directly to Juneteenth. “You’re free,” Michener says, “but what is freedom without the ability to exercise power and influence over the outcomes in your life? It really is a very constrained freedom.”
The present day, of course, is quite different. She herself is great example of progress, a Black woman and the daughter of immigrants who is now a professor at an Ivy League institution, she says. Black people are able to exercise power in many ways – as they and others did especially in 2020, Michener says, through the most massive protests in response to racial violence ever seen in the history of this country.
But even that power is often limited by our political institutions and public policies and how they operate, she says, because they are not built in a way to truly cultivate power among groups of people who haven’t traditionally had it.
“That was true on June 19, 1865,” she says. “And it’s true now, in different ways, for different reasons. The processes have changed, things certainly look different. I wouldn’t want to pretend otherwise. But there are themes and threads that have remained consistent throughout.”
On June 19, she’ll celebrate Juneteenth with a cookout with a few friends and her family. She’ll get her boys special Juneteenth T-shirts to wear.
“They really appreciate history, and its connection to us as Black people,” she says. “We wouldn’t not celebrate it.”