In 1852, famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave a now well-circulated speech to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society entitled, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” In it, he illustrated the hypocrisy of the American tenets of independence and freedom in the face of more than 200 years of historically brutal, horrific enslavement of Africans in this country (not to mention the decimation of Native Americans). Earlier this week, June 19th, “Juneteenth”, became a national holiday commemorating the date in 1865 when enslaved Africans in Texas learned that they were free. The catch—the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed on September 22, 1862, some two and a half years earlier!

In Texas and throughout the Southwestern portion of the U.S., Juneteenth is known by its many names: “Jubilee Day”, “ Black Independence Day”, “Emancipation Day”, etc. It is commemorated through community gatherings, speeches, poetry, music, parties, and all things red. Red represents the blood shed by slaves on this soil, their strength, and their resilience. The Great Migration of the formerly enslaved and their descendants in the early 1900s from former slaveholder states in the South to northern, western, and eastern parts of the U.S. deposited my ancestors in clear patterns: folks from Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas went West; people like my grandparents from Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia headed North to urban cities like Chicago, Detroit, and points beyond in Canada; Carolinians headed North along the Eastern Seaboard. 

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the global civil unrest that followed, Juneteenth gained national prominence (despite generations of local efforts to have it formally recognized) and has been catapulted from a regional African-American holiday to a national day of remembrance, or as the new federal law is entitled, “Juneteenth National Independence Day”. For some, it will simply be another paid day off. For some, a day of reflection. For families raising black children, I hope it will be a day of cultural awareness, education, recognition, and affirmation. 

What to the Black-transracially-adopted-child in American is Juneteenth?

I am an African-American woman, raised in the Midwest by a conscious family of black folks who know their history.  Among us are educators, writers, entrepreneurs, nurses, and an African historian and archaeologist. Yet, I had never seen Juneteenth truly marked as a holiday until I lived in southern California and Texas. I knew of it, understood its significance to my people, but celebrating it was not something we did. It wasn’t a particularly popular “holiday” in my city or family.  And, in fact, I never liked it. I felt strongly that the notion of thousands of enslaved people unknowingly persisting in slavery for two and a half years beyond the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t something to be celebrated as much as disdained. The deliberate effort to perpetuate chattel slavery well after its abolition is a stain on this country, a long, deep, lasting one, and a reminder of how hard many fought to maintain the then status quo. 

It is not a day I will “celebrate” per se, but rather mark and acknowledge through reflection, reading, learning more about, and honoring my ancestors and the sacrifices they made for generations they would never live to meet. Going forward, I’d like to see it become a national day of service not unlike Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. Both are days that will be significant for my children, and particularly my adopted Haitian daughter because I will make it so for her; because in this country, regardless of where she was born, she will always be judged first as African-American.  And thus, it is my responsibility to ensure that she understands that history, my history, our shared history as African descendants. 

But what about my White friends who adopted children from the same orphanage in Haiti that nurtured my sweet girl for the first four years of her life? Or my other friends whose children come from Ethiopia or elsewhere in the African diaspora? For that matter, what about those who adopted Black American children? What, for them, is Juneteenth and why does it matter?

The end of slavery was not accomplished with the stroke of a pen. In fact, it ended officially in different states at different times. Also officially, discrimination, hatred, inhumane treatment, and outright murder of Black people continued unabated; perpetuated by Jim Crow laws, segregation, redlining, and other tactics designed as workarounds to freedom and the recognition of Black people’s personhood.  Despite laws to the contrary, many of these acts and practices continue in the present day. The actions of the past directly impacted and shaped the present. That is exactly why all people, particularly those raising Black children, have an obligation to understand, discuss, become educated about and acknowledge the history of slavery. 

The pernicious vestiges of slavery are both pervasive and well-documented, from worn-out stereotypes to racial profiling, from the lack of African-American generational wealth to underrepresentation in the boardroom, from disparities in employment and incarceration rates to homeownership and community demographics. It all ties back to nearly 400 years of slavery—the laws designed to enforce it, the laws designed to suppress and oppress Black Americans in the absence of it, and the laws created today that on the one hand honor us and yet don’t go far enough to right the wrongs.  

For the past six years, I’ve watched my White peers in the adoption triad wrestle with the realities of raising Black children in this country. Many were ill-prepared from a cultural awareness perspective. I’ve held my girlfriends while they cried over the seemingly endless examples of extrajudicial killings of Black men and boys, something they’d been able to passively observe from afar that now had new resonance. I empathized with their pain and responded to their Facebook posts and messages asking for answers to complex questions about race and equity. For many, their first experience with racism from peers or family members came through adopting a Black child. It was an awakening. 

One friend wrote to me diligently for nearly a year sharing the uncomfortable truths she learned about her community, her family . . . and herself. Previously ignored racist comments from a brother-in-law now had new meaning as she prepared to bring her boys home. For the first time in her life, she had to envision herself in the skin of a Black person. Now her concern was for her children’s sense of belonging, how would they find community both within and outside of the family? How would they feel in certain settings, how would they be received and treated? Would they be tokenized? When would they grow from cute to threatening? Exactly what did she need to do to ensure not only their physical health but their mental and spiritual well-being too?  How would she prepare them for how the world might perceive them and treat them in response? 

These were the questions she battled with. In my opinion, as a mother to four Black children, a former educator, and a civic leader, these are precisely the questions that every parent of a Black child should address for themselves and the sake of their kids. It’s a given for Black parents, a generationally descended cultural imperative. It must become the same for White parents. 

For some transracial adoptive parents I know, there is little recognition of what their children will or do face because of their Blackness. In a recent discussion about inappropriate comments that people make to conspicuous families, a few parents shared that they hadn’t experienced that. I remarked that they would, one day.  One dad asked me incredulously, “Do you really think people will say inappropriate things to us?” Abso-flippin-lutely, I do! I’ve lived it, I’ve watched it time and time again. The question is will he recognize it? Will he be attuned enough to his son’s experience to see it, let alone address it? 

The notion that somehow your kid will be the only one not to experience racism is a complete and total lie. And the fact that you can’t or won’t see it, means that you can’t be his safe space when it happens to him. 

At a party years ago, I overheard a group of adoptive dads talking. As with many of our adoption outings, I was the only Black parent (not that Black people don’t adopt, we do in greater numbers than recognized; it’s just not as common with international adoptions). Somehow the discussion shifted to cultural holidays and celebrations. One dad mentioned that he would not be celebrating Kwanzaa with his Black son because “he’s not Black, he’s Haitian!” He laughed at his own wisecrack; others chuckled along. One stood quietly, our eyes locked momentarily. That dad had two Black sons. We both crumpled our lips and sighed. I walked away. I didn’t have it in me to have that discussion that day.

The reality is that a Black child will always be seen as Black first and foremost. Neither a child on the playground nor a police officer will ask where he’s from. No one will care that he’s being raised by a White family or a Black one. Instead, he will be assessed first by his looks, by his Hershey’s Kiss complexion, and that assessment will be filtered through the biases we all carry and the history we and our forebears have lived—whether ingrained in us by experience or education. 

Human beings crave affirmation, children especially. Visit any playground or classroom for shouts of, “Look at me!” or, “Look at what I did!” for proof. To be seen and acknowledged is to be loved. We derive affirmation from any number of things. At work, it’s our salaries, titles, or promotions. At school, it’s grades, awards, and accomplishments.  At home with family, we are affirmed through recognition and acknowledgment of our experiences and feelings. 

The lack of recognition, not being seen, is soul-crushing to the kids we’ve chosen to love forever. The lack of connection to their history, culture of origin, people who look like them, people who know without saying exactly the weight and feel of the challenges they face—it’s all a bittersweet knowing surrendered in exchange for the love of a forever family. 

In the absence of shared or common lived experience (or at least an education or an interest in a perspective, culture, or history apart from your own), how can you possibly instill in a child a true sense of themselves? And when their history has roots in centuries of degradation of people who look just like them, you cannot merely sweep it under the rug. It has to be aired out, examined, explored. It has to be confronted, sometimes repeatedly. Sometimes it has to be marked, remembered, acknowledged—that is what holidays are for after all. 

For some, June 19th will mean very little. As a Black male friend wryly commented, “Extrajudicial killings are the issue, and America responds with a day off. Make it make sense.” Celebrating Juneteenth in the face of so much pain and so many living and dead reminders of inhumanity feels less like affirmation than dismissal. There is legitimacy to that viewpoint. 

I see Juneteenth as a solemn reminder of the need to affirm, acknowledge, and value the past. A present-day calling to honor African-American culture, humanity, and contributions to the fabric of this country. For those of us raising Black children, I believe it is our obligation to them to ensure that they too know this history and their place in it. That they too see themselves reflected in the historic accomplishments of their ancestors who fled oppression in search of the freedoms these children now enjoy. Freedom to be who they are, who they choose, unshackled by literal chains or figurative ones.

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