MSU Scholars Examine Sustained Significance and Impact of Juneteenth

On Saturday, June 19, Michigan State University will host a  university-wide and in-person celebration of Juneteenth to commemorate the freeing of African American slaves in the United States. This week-long celebration includes virtual film screenings, panel discussions, and webinars that will lead up to the in-person event.

A recent MSU Today podcast featured four MSU scholars who discuss the sustained significance and impact of Juneteenth, including Dr. Tamura Lomax (she/her), Foundational Associate Professor in MSU’s Department of African American and African Studies (AAAS).

“I am not one who grew up participating in or knowing about Juneteenth,” Lomax said. “I didn’t learn about it until sometime in high school in California. I lived my life between California and New York. And I’d never heard about it in New York, but in California I remember hearing something about it but not really understanding what it is.”

Tamura Lomax

Lomax explained what she means when, as a historian, she says the thing about Juneteenth that strikes her is the multiple attempts at freedom.

“What’s important to me is that, yes, Juneteenth is a celebration, but there’s still this delayed sense of gratification in terms of freedom. So that’s what’s important to me in terms of my work, in terms of noting that. And noting how Black folks free and enslaved have been forced to navigate, this idea of freedom while living a life that is truly within a context of unfreedom.”

Dr. Shondra L. Marshall (she/her) is a national president of MSU Black Alumni (MSUBA).

“I would like to salute the student body and all the excellent and phenomenal work they’re doing at MSU. We push, and we move forward,” Marshall said. “MSU Black Alumni was officially founded in 1980. Under my administration, I have elevated three areas of organizational focus. They are engagement, enhancement, and evolvement. We have an endowment which includes several named endowments at the institution. And that actually was started off at one of our first homecoming events in October of 1980. At that event, they passed around a pumpkin and they raised money, which included $1,000 to earmark our endowment at the institution. And today, we have over $2.5 million in endowments.

“When I think about freedom to liberation, how is MSUBA helping the institution get to liberation? Are we holding the institution accountable and looking at every policy, practice, rule, hire, and program with an anti-Black lens. What I have witnessed under the current administration is some progress, but I’m looking forward to see true change. And to me, liberation looks like access, opportunity, programming, resources, and freedom. And so the question that I like to ask is really just are we thriving? We’re getting to liberation and the notion that we are living in a sense of freedom, but there’s a sense of unfreedom that we are experiencing. How are we together thriving?”

Sharron D. Reed-Davis (she/her) is a senior at MSU studying political science pre-law and human development and family studies. She’s the former two-term president of the Black Students’ Alliance (BSA).

Shondra Marshall

“I didn’t grow up celebrating Juneteenth,” she said. “I didn’t know much about it. I actually grew up celebrating the Fourth of July. But once I got to college and started getting involved in BSA, that is where I learned about Juneteenth and about what our celebration is supposed to be and when it’s supposed to be. Not with the red, white, and blue. Not celebrating a country and an institution that has held us down and has taken us for granted.

“I think people should care about Juneteenth and want to uplift Juneteenth because not all people were free when everyone was free. Black people weren’t free. We’re still not free. So this small celebration that we get to have is when we as people got some type of freedom. It was just one step in the steps that we’re still taking to become entirely free people. So this small celebration is something big for us. It may not be when everyone was free, but that’s because we always have to be last. We always have to be the ones that are enslaved, that are taken for granted, that are pushed around. So this small celebration on Juneteenth is something that’s big to us. And that’s why people should want to celebrate and care about Juneteenth.”

Stratton Lee III (he/him) is the President of Michigan State University Black Faculty, Staff, and Administrators Association.

“When I think about the significance of Juneteenth, I think about it being a celebration of freedom and liberation,” Lee said. “It serves as a reminder to our community of the lives that have been lost – for those who have fought for freedom and liberation coming from the continent of Africa to living their lives here in the U.S. to those of us who are alive today. This has been a fight for African Americans for absolute quality of life, rights, and property. We memorialize those who have died and stand in forceful protest of those who have killed them. It is a celebration. And so when we think about liberation and freedom, we think about what does that mean? And what does that look like in word, action, and in deed?

“It’s important for us to come together at these times. To remember our past. To reflect on our shared histories. To learn about our various experiences and to come together collectively to identify what we want to do as a community as we move forward. It speaks to the resilience of our community and the people within it.

Sharron Reed-Davis

“Upon our freedom and liberation, it finally meant that in theory, we are all free. But when you get into what freedom actually looks like, you recognize that our history has been bound to this sense of delay. Many in our communities have experienced those long-term impacts of Jim Crow and segregation and Black Codes, even though we had the Emancipation, the Proclamations, and the Thirteenth Amendment. There are those in this nation who fought tooth and nail to ensure that Black folks would never be able to truly experience that sense of freedom. And on these days and these times where we are able to come together as a community, this is our space to celebrate. To come together and to experience what joys and pleasures we can as a people and as a community. There are many to celebrate and there’s much to smile about, even though things sometimes look ugly on the outside.”

“To me this is a celebration of Blackness,” said Marshall. “Juneteenth at MSU on June 19th is called Juneteenth Celebration: From Freedom to Liberation. This is the first time MSU has hosted a university-wide celebration to commemorate the ending of slavery in this country. This recognition is really huge for a predominantly white institution. And what I’m most thrilled about is the unity across our affiliate groups, which are represented here today: Black Student Alliance, Black Faculty, Staff, and Administrators, of course Black Alumni, and also the Department of African American and African Studies and Black Graduate Student Association as well. It shows the power and unity, and it clearly shows that institutional synergy as we have a trustee and leaders across the institution engaged. The event is going to happen on June 19th from 12 to 2 p.m. and more information, including how to RSVP, is on the website of the Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives. This is a true celebration with music, with food, community, and more.”

Stratton C. Lee III

“I want to thank both Lee and Shondra for really bringing us back to the Black joy and bringing in that balance because that’s very important,” Lomax said. “I think about the ancestors, and I am amazed. I spent 10 years in what we call the stacks in my graduate program at Vanderbilt reading firsthand slave sources. And I’ve always been amazed at all the creative ways in which the ancestors have made joy and made beauty and made culture in the midst of complete dehumanization, just complete demonarchy, just complete ugliness they made the space for joy and beauty. I really appreciate that being re-centered.

“I’m new to the institution, and I am watching the institution daily. We say in AAAS, ‘Okay, what y’all going to do?’ They may say, ‘Well, you have a new department. You’re hiring these people.’ Well, it’s more than that. I want to see all the ways that justice and equity in very real ways center Blackness. How are they lived out in terms of politics? I can’t say that I’m seeing that every day. And that is as a new faculty member. I’d like to see what’s next. I’d like to see what’s next and want more.

“This celebration is a start and it’s wonderful in terms of acknowledgement. But truth be told, after America was burning last summer, a lot of companies dedicated time and resources and language to DEI efforts and to Black folks. I’m very much interested in how the institution plans to incorporate a model in real life. Beyond the celebration and beyond the building of the department, what is it? What are the plans? I’m very interested in that. Because to me, that should be a part of the efforts. I don’t want to talk about Juneteenth and not talk about all the structural ways that the institution should be evolving.”

“I want to echo that as well, because I think that a lot of what’s been happening with people trying to step up and be allies,” Davis adds. “It’s all good, but the world of social media and the people in charge are trying to make Black culture seem like it’s something new and something that just happened or that we just made up. Juneteenth has been a thing. I’m not impressed that because of everything that happened last year, things are finally starting to happen for Black communities. The things that are happening to us are finally coming to light. That’s why people are trying to hop on a bandwagon and say that this is not right. It’s been not right. So yeah, I appreciate people finally learning and finally highlighting what is happening to Black communities, but what’s next now? What’s about to happen now because thanks, this was cool, but what’s next?”

“I want to attend to something else that Sharron pointed to and some of what Dr. Lomax and Dr. Marshall did as well – this sense of progress juxtaposed with trauma,” Lee adds. “Oftentimes people will say, ‘Well, why do you all want to do this? And why do you want to celebrate? And why is it important?’ There are many people who have been a part of this. But when you think about it, it’s still very new and fresh for many of the folks in our communities.

“Many of us are navigating traumas that have been passed down from generation to generation. The fight doesn’t stop. We can take time to celebrate. But as we celebrate, we must continue to move forward in advocating for our freedom, our liberty, our justice, and our rights.

“I think that that’s an important aspect of this celebration. It brings us together in a point of joy and reminds us that we are actually a community of people, one people, who have a common ancestry that brought us to this place in this time.”

“I want us to truly think about what freedom deliberation really looks like,” Marshall says. “What are we doing to really look at, as I mentioned before, the policies, the practices, the structure, the hires, the programming, the funding, the resources, the access, and the opportunity? How are we looking at all of these things and holding accountable those who have the decision-making power to ensure that we’re getting liberated?”

“When I think about the progression of black people, my outlook on it is to appreciate and move forward,” adds Reed-Davis. “Thank you, but what is next? We have a long way to go still, and we have come a long way. We need to appreciate how far we have come but continue to look forward. If we get complacent or stuck on where we came from or what someone gave us, we won’t be able to move forward to the next steps and find true liberation. So thank you, but what’s next?”

“I think about this is a time for the Black community to come together in joy and gladness,” Lee says. “Let’s leave all of those internal conflicts and learned helplessness and all that type of stuff behind and find the strength and excitement to celebrate being Black in the U.S. I think about it as being a time our sister Maxine Waters describes as ‘Reclaiming My Time.’ This is our time to reclaim. Our time to reclaim our joy. Reclaim our freedoms. Reclaim our peace. Reclaim our power and our energy to be us authentically and unapologetically. We’re doing that in what people call a traditionally white space, and we’re making an inclusive, diverse community each and every day.”

“I am always looking back in order to look forward,” concludes Lomax. “And so sometimes I may dwell in the difficult parts of the past more so than the joy. I think the key here for Juneteenth is really bringing that balance. I know sometimes non-Black folks will see Black folks celebrating and think that we enjoy our oppression. I want to make it clear that when we see people celebrating, it is not about an enjoyment of oppression. It is a sense of finding joy, despite it all. That really speaks to the resilience of Black folks.

“To me, that needs to be the centering message of the day: the amazing resilience of Black folks, then and now. It is amazing that Black folks are this resilient and that they can find joy. And so to me, the centering message for the day is that Black folks can find joy in spite of it all.”

Originally published by WKAR.