Guest Op-Ed: Reflections on Juneteenth 2021

Dr. Tamara Blake-Canty,

(As delivered at the first-annual Chelsea Juneteenth celebration in Chelsea Square on June 18)

Thank you Chelsea Black Community (CBC) and especially, Ms. Joan Cromwell for the honor to present to everyone on this historic day.  Today Juneteenth is a federal holiday.  Thank you to my superintendent, Dr. Abeyta, to my colleagues Julia Shea and Trelaine Clark for your continuous support.  A special thank you to my daughter, the love of my life, Blake Canty who embodies what it means to be young, gifted and black (Nina Simone).  And might I add beautiful.  Finally, thank you to my/our ancestors who fought valiantly for a cause that’s greater than they are.  I am here today because they paved the way.  

I was 25 years old when I first heard of Juneteenth in my church.  Too embarrassed to ask so I researched its origin and learned a part of my history that was recorded or documented in any of my text books.

Today I was charged to speak on the history and meaning of Juneteenth

Imagine the year 1865, you stand in the wide open cotton field with a plow in your hand, the sun relentlessly unforgiving, scorching your dark skin and sweat races down your entire body as you labor over a field in which you will not reap its benefits, nor will your children.  This is a rosy glimpse into the life of so many of our ancestors. Thus in what must have felt like an eternal hell,  the wheels of justice changed, heaven answered almost 300 years of persistent cries and freedom was born from her desolate grave, a cotton field. 

It was June 19, 1865, the day of Emancipation, the day of freedom, the day of jubilee, the day that became known as Juneteenth—June nineteenth, the commemoration that slaves in Galveston, Texas are now free through the announcement of General Order No. 3 where union army general Gordon Granger marched into Texas to herald in the proclamation.  Prior to this important announcement, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863 But it only applied to people in Confederate states.  Those in union-held territories did not taste the nectar of freedom until the proclamation of the 13th Amendment.   Talk about the tales of two cities.  Or what I coin as the tale of 2 sets of children: the free and the captive. 

Today, our Chelsea Black Community (CBC) celebrates the well-deserved and might I add, the loooong overdue freedom of our ancestors.  This day marks an era of “We shall overcome”, an era of hope, an era of prosperity, an era of pride, an era of optimism, an era of reflection and remembrance, an era forever etched in our hearts.  Today we celebrate and honor our ancestors for the gift of freedom they’ve bestowed to us.  We honor them for the endless sacrifices they’ve made so that we can stand among our oppressors and look them dead in the face as we chant “we shall not be moved”.  Today we celebrate the courage and bravery of our past, present and future.  Today we celebrate by feasting on the foods of our ancestors by the barbeque pit that is the center of the meal that symbolizes the need to feed our physical body because tomorrow we will rise to press on, to march on, to fight for a heavenly cause.

Today, we wear our finest garments because our ancestors were denied that basic right.  Today, we celebrate and remember our forefathers and foremothers “who did not come here to take no stuff” (Harriet Tubman).  Today we celebrate a nation that has been a stepmother to her black and brown children but we celebrate for she is slowly admitting her wrong and working with her favored children to make things right.  Today, we celebrate this land that is beginning to understand that July 4 is not the independence day of all her children.  That Juneteenth, is the day of reconciliation, the day of atonement, the day of forgiveness, the day of tears, the day of laughter, the day of love, the day for unity, the day we look to the hills from which our help cometh from and give praise.  Today we celebrate the homecoming of lost children and forgotten children.  Today we celebrate, as we “all pull together” my swahili ancestors would echo harambee for a day of jubilee.   Today we all pull together to celebrate…harambee, harambee, harambee.

As we celebrate it is also prudent to liberate and educate ourselves and our children, our community.  We must liberate ourselves from what Bob Marley calls mental slavery.  He sings it  best, “Old pirates, yes, they rob I. Sold I to the merchant ships, minutes after they took I to the bottomless pit but my hands were made strong by hands of the Almighty”.  Our hearts and spirits were also made strong.  We did not survive 300 cruel years of slavery to act as if life is a crystal stairs. We did not come here to mortgage our freedom.  It is ours to own and we are owning it.

We must not become complacent in the soft cotton sheets of freedom.  The freedom we experience is not wide-range.  We are not free to roam and folic in the wide range and bounty of this land we call (mother’s house). There are rooms in which we are not permitted to enter. There are spaces in which we are not invited to sit.  We must be like aunty Shirley Chischolm and bring our own seat to the table of “liberty and justice for all”.  We must advocate for better education for our children. Chelsea, you are on the right path by selecting Dr. Abeyta.  Don’t forget we must support her.

We must champion the battle against an unfair healthcare system, housing, and we must fight for our economic freedom.  Juneteenth is a day to celebrate our physical freedom but freedom is not free when there is economical, social and political bondage. Freedom is not ravaged communities, freedom is not gentrification. Today we celebrate being partially liberated but we will continue to educate our community for tomorrow we will pick up the mantle of oppression and denounce her.  Today we celebrate but tomorrow we will continue the work and legacy our ancestors began.

In closuring, let us remember the words of our MLK, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Barack Obama, Frederick Douglas, Colin Powell, Philip Rudolph :

The time is always right to do what is right

To have a vision, be demanding

If there is no struggle, there is no progress

Freedom is never given, it is won

I’m not going to die, I’m going home like a shooting star.

By any means necessary

We shall not wear the mask

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced

Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave

The future rewards those who press on. I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I don’t have time to complain. I’m going to press on.


Yes we can

But today, Juneteenth, we celebrate, we celebrate the past, the present and what is to come…

Dr. Tamara Blake Canty works at the Chelsea Public Schools as a literary and humanities coordinator

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