By Virginia Lowman
When news of George Floyd’s death began to circulate in late May, I heard Dominique Fils-Aimé’s rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” play in my mind. This is one of many death rituals I’ve assumed since Philando Castile was shot dead by police on Facebook Live in 2016. Other rituals include preliminary measures I take within my friend groups — screenshots or recordings during laughter-filled FaceTimes with Black friends, particularly male friends, just in case something happens to them after we hang up. I even have practices in place in the event that I become a headline, too. When we talk about freedom in America, we have to acknowledge it as a thing of cultural nuance. We have to reconcile America’s past and the commodification of the Black body as America’s blood diamond.
In the wake of national uprising and calls demanding justice for Black lives in the past month, many Americans are learning of the 155-year-old holiday Juneteenth for the first time. June 19 commemorates the day in 1865 when slaves in Texas learned of their freedom as decreed by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation two years prior. Another six months would pass before the 13th Amendment would be ratified to legally abolish slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States except “as a punishment for crime.” Also called Jubilee Day, Juneteenth is an occasion to commune in prayer and enjoy music and dancing, as well as red food and drinks to commemorate the blood that was shed and the lives that were lost as a result of slavery. It is a time for Black families to lean into joy and honor their lineage, and a time for America to acknowledge its gruesome past and the work to be done. As the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks, and other Black men and women reveal, more than 150 years later, Black people are still fighting to truly embody what it is to be free as they battle the racism inherent within the framework of many of our institutions, modern slavery in the form of mass incarceration, and language that fails to reflect their lived experience.
President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to abolish slavery; however, it would be more appropriate to say he defunded slavery. Historian and acclaimed Yale professor David Blight, in a lecture during his course “The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877,” estimated that three years prior to its signing, the South’s “nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.” The 13th Amendment’s caveat regarding criminality would limit the economic blow that would ensue with the abolishment of slavery. America has always required Black people to work for their personhood; freedom remains a kind of mirage — one that requires legislation like the CROWN Act, which aims to ensure protection against discrimination based on hair texture and protective styles like braids or dreadlocks, in order to be remotely realized. Racial oppression is America’s threshing floor, distinguishing those whom it deems as worthy of dignity and respect and those who aren’t.
Thus, the 13th Amendment is the constitutionally-approved extension of slavery under the guise of freedom. It is a transient document, one that took newly freed Blacks from the fields and plantations to state and federally-owned prisons, making the judicial system their new slave master. Attorney Bryan Stevenson, the subject of social justice film Just Mercy, wrote that the legacy of slavery is “central to understanding [America’s] practice of mass incarceration and excessive punishment.” After emancipation, he continued, Black people transitioned from being seen as “fully human ‘slaves’” to “fully human ‘criminals.’”
Stevenson went on to note that “laws governing slavery were replaced with Black Codes governing free Black people — making the criminal-justice system central to new strategies of racial control.” These are the trappings of systemic racism that suggest as emancipation facilitated the lawful switch of Black people from property to personhood, America ceased to believe and abide by its own Declaration of Independence, the supposed “truth” that “all men are created equal.” Ta-Nehisi Coates further explained this in How Racism Invented Race in America, stating, “Whiteness and Blackness are not a fact of providence but of policy — of slave codes, black codes, Jim Crow, redlining, GI Bills, housing covenants, New Deals, and mass incarcerations.”
As the 13th Amendment fell short in abolishing slavery, so, too, does standard English in expressing the social repercussions of America’s history with racism. The uprising after the killing of Floyd has revealed the shortfalls of the English language and the ways Black people are marginalized by its disregard for racial inequity and what anthropologist Samy Alim calls “structural discriminatory discourse.” When we talk about systemic racism, for example, we are, quite literally, using language that does not formally exist to accommodate the Black experience. Merriam-Webster recently revealed its plans to revise the definition of “racism” to include “systemic racism,” at the prompting of Kennedy Mitchum, an African-American scholar and 2020 graduate of Drake University, who noticed white people defending arguments about racism by citing its definition. The changes to the print dictionary are still forthcoming, but in an email to Mitchum, the Merriam-Webster editorial staff acknowledged that “use of the word racism to specifically describe racial prejudice combined with systemic oppression is now so common, ignoring this meaning of the word may leave our readers confused or misled.” Mitchum also noted the current definition does not address microaggressions, or race-based assumptions of mental fitness.
Dictionaries are data-driven language tools that provide definitions for words that have agreed-upon meanings, but they do not take into account the nuanced meanings of words in various ethnic and social groups. As we celebrate Juneteenth and look to the future, we need to consider how these barriers hinder our universal understanding of freedom and racial inequity. It is no secret that language is varied and undergoes changes based on factors like the speaker’s social class and ethnic background, though standard English is the foundation for all of its variations. But conversations about white silence, white fragility, and the complex reality of freedom by which Black people live have been held in Black households for centuries, overlooked in standard English and often dismissed as race talk. We don’t have formal language to describe what Black people are going through and white people don’t have concrete definitions that allow them to hold themselves accountable and discern whether or not their actions are racist or facilitate racism.
White men and women who institute what Black writers like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison have long called the “white gaze,” viewing Black people through the lens of racial bias and racism, are able to do so while claiming and believing they aren’t racist because, by definition, their actions allow them to think so. This includes women like Amy Cooper, who weaponize their privilege, or those like Svitlana Flom and Lisa Alexander, who routinely harass Black individuals or other people of color, causing the viral Karen meme and spawning the popular Instagram account KarensGoingWild. Language is arguably a part of the insulation Robin DiAngelo describes when addressing White Fragility in her book of the same name: “White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress.”
Ultimately, if this kind of behavior is not properly defined, if language continually allows people to put space between themselves and racism, then Black people will still live within siloed definitions of freedom, unable to comfortably birdwatch, or wear hoodies or medical masks without fear of unnecessary scrutiny, detainment, or assumptions of guilt at the hands of police as a result of racially biased policing. If language serves as a buffer between people and racism, and/or nullifies and facilitates silencing the Black experience, freedom, as it is currently defined, is still out of reach for all because systemic racism will always be the phantom factor countering it.
Juneteeth is a celebration of freedom, but it is also a reminder of America’s legacy of slavery. It is an opportunity to assess the many ways language and racial disparities have shaped and continue to shape the nation, and to identify the role each of us plays in upholding or hindering the freedoms of others, and do the work to self-correct where necessary by listening, understanding, and learning the different cultural experiences of American life.
In the time it took you to read this article, George Floyd died. May he rest in peace and may the trauma of his death not have been in vain.