On June 18, 2021, The Biden-Harris Administration signed Senate Bill 475 (S.475), the National Independence Day Act, which proclaimed Juneteenth a federal holiday. The president defined it as a day to “commemorate the past; celebrate the emancipation of the formerly enslaved; and remind us of our capacity to “heal, hope and emerge in new ways.”
Juneteenth can be all that and more. The formerly enslaved African Americans who celebrated the first Juneteenth have much to teach us about living within, surviving, and overcoming the ills of an extractive economy that depletes and commodifies our human and natural resources. It’s a lesson with new urgency and relevance in the era of climate change.
The origins of Juneteenth and its commemoration are very particular to African Americans. Considered the oldest African-American holiday, it celebrated the news of emancipation of enslaved Africans in Galveston, Texas, two years after the signing of the emancipation proclamation. There are similar Emancipation Day celebrations in Columbus, Mississippi (aka (8ofMay), Western Kentucky (aka – 8thofAugust) Washington, D.C. (April 15) and elsewhere. These are joyous celebrations of freedom. But there can – and should – be more to Juneteenth than barbecues and music festivals.
As a national holiday, Juneteenth must be relevant to all Americans. It can provide a platform for all Americans to remember and lift up our ancestors, their wisdom and their ways of living under harsh circumstances. With that wisdom, we can rebuild a culture and civic infrastructure to withstand the ongoing disruptions to our natural, built, political, economic, and social environments.
Juneteenth tells a cultural story of resilience, family reunification, mutual aid, educational uplift, community building, collective economics, “commoning” and stewardship of the land. These values and ways of living were indispensable for the formerly enslaved to overcome daily hardships, for thriving in a resource-limited world, and for building new communities and new possibilities after emancipation. We celebrate Juneteenth today because of the struggle then and now to build a cooperative and communal culture. “It took a village” to overcome the challenges.
Black-owned cooperatives were one way to do so. Collective Courage, by Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembrand, documents over 160 legally incorporated Black-owned cooperatives since the mid-1880s. These coops were a way to survive, to provide family security and prosperity, and create stable, lasting systems for housing, food, and land conservation. African Americans also created self-sufficient communities: Maroon communities, built by runaway slaves, and Freedman settlements, built by formerly enslaved Africans after emancipation. While many of these towns -- such as “Black Wall Street,” the Greenwood district in in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Rosewood, Florida; and Wilmington, North Carolina -- were torched and their Black residents were run out of town, hundreds still exist.
Building community resilience was clearly born out of necessity, but more importantly, it was grounded in a shared African cultural ethos of Ubuntu, meaning, “I am because you/we are.” Ubuntu uplifts our oneness and recognizes that well-being flows from caring relationships with each other, our community, and nature. Ubuntu maintained us through enslavement and reconstruction, and while somewhat eroded over time through assimilation into western culture, it is finding a resurgence. The cooperative spirit of Ubuntu is central to the Juneteenth story, and provides a way forward in this new era of climate, political, economic, and social disruptions.
While the African-American experience of slavery is singular, this cultural ethos is not unique to African Americans. There are similar stories by those who lived the legacy of the Trail of Tears, the Holocaust, Japanese internment, the potato famine, immigration, wars and political oppression, as well as racial, gender, and religious discrimination and persecution. Juneteenth affords Americans the opportunity to take pride in our unique and common history of resistance and resilience, to remember the communal values and behaviors of sharing and care, and to restore and carry forward these principles and practices. These cultural values and lifeways are essential for mitigating and adapting to climate change.
The Climate Connection
Now more than ever, America needs a climate breakthrough. Our solutions are predominantly technological in nature: greening our buildings, cars, and transit systems, fuel sources and communities – Scope 1 and 2 emissions. These measures are important and necessary, but insufficient. Most emissions come from the massive, global supply chain of material extraction, processing, and distribution, powered by underpaid (if not enslaved) labor, to feed consumer demands.
If we are to mitigate and adapt to climate change, we need to resist the market demand for massive production and conspicuous consumption. We need new economies that are localized, generative, and cooperative. We need community energy, food, and housing systems. We need to restore the commons.
This, in turn, requires a major cultural shift. The western, Cartesian philosophy of “I think, therefore I am” spawned an ego-centered, utilitarian belief system that has us on the brink of environmental, social, and economic disaster. This culture of individualism and materialism is driving a global economy that reveres mass production, mass consumption, massive waste and massive wealth accumulation from the privatization and extraction of the commons. The paradigm is both unsustainable and unjust.
Surviving and adapting to climate change in a resource-limited world demands more than new technologies to decarbonize our economy. It compels us to rethink how we live with each other and nature. It calls us to ferret out the root causes of our current crisis and fashion alternatives to systems of extraction and degradation of our natural and human resources.
Ubuntu is one such alternative. It reminds us that we can’t thrive if the planet is dying. We can’t thrive without community. It recognizes that humans are part of a larger and more significant relational, communal, societal, environmental, and spiritual world. It is the belief in a universal bond of sharing and being responsible for the gifts and limits of nature. It is the foundation of building the society that protects the well-being of people and planet.
Similar beliefs and practices are found in Native American, East Asian and other cultures, such as Kapwa in Filipino cultures. These are the cultural roots to mitigate and adapt to climate change and to create the social capital to withstand the resource competition that has bitterly divided our nation.
Juneteenth Call to Action
On Juneteenth, we should clearly celebrate the emancipation of the formerly enslaved and call out the continued struggle for freedom, voting rights, economic opportunities, and more. But this holiday is also an opportunity to remember and honor the ancestors on whose shoulders we stand. By uplifting their wisdom and ways of being, we can envision – and build -- alternative economies and lifestyles grounded in an ethos of interdependence, cooperation, and respect for nature. Let’s use Juneteenth to build the political will and community action to do this.
Just as MLK Day is a day of service, let’s make Juneteenth “Heritage Day” – a call to action to reclaim, and celebrate our legacy and cooperative traditions, and to strengthen the bonds of collective struggle and community resilience – past, present and future -- that we share.