This Juneteenth, I remember the powerful piece written by Nikole Hannah-Jones last year when she spearheaded the 1619 Project at the New York Times, “I had been taught, in school, through cultural osmosis, that the flag wasn’t really ours, that our history as a people began with enslavement and that we had contributed little to this great nation…. That my dad felt so much honor in being an American felt like a marker of his degradation, his acceptance of our subordination. [Yet, my father] knew that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us…. Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.”
For far too long, our frame of reference in this country has always been that of the “white master” defining the terms of any issue. As an American woman of Chinese descent – a woman of color with my own personal struggles around race, class, and gender – I know that racism is born from this country’s shameful history around Native genocide to clear these lands for white ownership and that remnants of slavery are deeply embedded into virtually every facet of American life, including, but not limited to the police state that continues to sanction the taking of Black lives without impunity. For me, anti-Black racism and anti-Native settler-colonialism, alongside orientalism, are the foundations of white supremacy.
Agewise, I have lived the equivalent of several lifetimes of Black trans women whose lives were cut far too short simply for being themselves. I am not a Black trans woman, but as a darker skinned East Asian who has never been fully accepted by my own community, I know what it is to be marginalized, invisible, the perpetual foreigner – to be centrally and eternally “other” in the public eye; to be less than even in a community that claims us in public but marginalizes us in practice.
In my lifetime, what I have taken for granted, perhaps barely even recognized, are the rights that were gained through the blood of others. With each passing year, I deepen my appreciation for what it takes to create, sustain, and evolve this democracy we call America. So, this Juneteenth, I know it is my individual responsibility, and collectively with all of you, to change that frame of reference and instead center what has been rightfully and cumulatively earned and invested through centuries of struggle by Black Americans on lands traditionally held sacred by Native peoples before slavery.
In my mind, Juneteenth is a new frame of reverence based on love and respect for our collective humanity. I think of it as a turning point that no longer marks time as told by the white master. Instead, it centralizes the lived experiences and expertise of Black Americans as the heart and soul of this country’s democracy. This frame of reverence understands that love and respect are not zero sum, but are abundantly generative. It is not just about what was, but importantly, what is to come.
Juneteenth. For me, a new frame of reverence.