Updated: Mar 26
So, come this Saturday, Black people will be dancing near what was once the grave of a mass murderer and enslaver.
It’s a party that’s more than a century overdue.
Memphis’ Juneteenth celebration will move from Robert R. Church Park to Health Sciences Park. To the place where a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest – a slave trader and Confederate general whose troops slaughtered surrendering Black troops at Fort Pillow 157 years ago – cast its shadow since 1904.
That statue was removed in 2017. This month, the park was purged of Forrest’s remains and that of his wife.
Just in time for the freedom festivities to commence.
“When they come to the festival in Health Sciences Park, not only will they have amazing music. They’ll have amazing vendors, and amazing things to do,” said Telisa Franklin, CEO of the Juneteenth Urban Music Festival - and who has organized Memphis’ Juneteenth celebrations for nearly three decades.
“But the main thing I want people to do is to take a walk through the outdoor museum and understand how we got here…
"It was said to me that I was washing away the history of Nathan Bedford Forrest. I said ‘The devil is a lie.’
"We added components to our outdoor museum so people will know this is where Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife were buried, and what he did [to Black people], but today, we walk for freedom…today, we can be together as one in this park, when at one time we didn’t even have the freedom to be in this park.”
But while June 19th honors the day in 1865 in which enslaved people in Texas learned two years late that they had been freed in 1863, this year’s celebration is right on time for something else.
It’s right on time to remind people that such celebrations aren’t just about reveling in what Black freedom means, but what oppression against Black people has wrought.
That oppression continues.
Thanks to Republican lawmakers in Texas – the state where slaveholders spawned the underpinnings of Juneteenth largely by withholding news that the Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved people in the Confederate states in 1863 – it will be more difficult for students to learn about the significance and context of such events.
Lawmakers there banned the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools, which posits that the racism which began with slavery is imbedded in American institutions. So did GOP lawmakers in Tennessee, Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Oh, and there’s this: Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, has signed on as a sponsor to a Senate bill to deny federal funds to school districts to teach the 1619 Project -an initiative by The New York Times that places slavery and its consequences at the center of U.S. history – as part of its curriculum.
The bill’s principal sponsor, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, has had it in for the project ever since he was attacked on Twitter for defending slavery as a “necessary evil,” and became embroiled in a debate with Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist who spearheaded the project for The New York Times, over the issue.
Thing is, critical race theory isn’t being taught in schools. But the laws to ban it are written in ways that will intimidate many teachers into not teaching Black history at all; like, for example, forbidding lessons that cause psychological distress or pain for a student because of his or her race.
Meaning that, if a lesson on slavery and Juneteenth causes a student to burst into tears, that teacher could be in trouble.
So, Blackburn, Cotton and other Republican lawmakers are doing what racists do: Using the power of the law to deny Black people their humanity.
That's why Juneteenth, as well as the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and other occasions that celebrate Black history, illuminate Black struggles and celebrate Black triumphs, have now been conscripted into a larger battle: They must fill in the spaces in U.S. history that racist lawmakers would prefer to leave blank.
Their role is now one of resistance as well as revelry.
And Franklin is totally here for it.
“When they walk away from Juneteenth, when they walk away from the outdoor museum, there should be some conversations about change,” Franklin said.
“We added some components, some visual components, so that children will ask: 'Mommy, who was Breonna Taylor? Who was George Floyd?' That’s so they can have these hard conversations with their children, so that they know what’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong, and we’re not going to cover it up…
“We don’t care if they take it [racism lessons] out of the schools. The village will educate the village.”
Ideally, instructors should be able to freely teach about slavery and the impact that racism has wrought on U.S. institutions, so that what students learn at celebrations like Juneteenth can be put into context and debated in class.
It’s also ironic that white lawmakers like Blackburn and Cotton, and state lawmakers like Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, and Mark White, R-Memphis, are doing what the slavers in
Texas did in 1863 by vilifying the 1619 Project and critical race theory.
Like those slavers, who didn’t want to face the fact that slavery was over, those lawmakers are trying to erase the teaching of truths they don’t want to face.
Yet the fact that so many Republican lawmakers believe ignorance is power means that Black people and others who know better must use whatever means possible to illuminate knowledge as power.
That’s what Franklin has been doing with Juneteenth.
“I am committed to making people understand what Juneteenth means,” she said. “We cannot erase the history, we must embrace the history, and understand that it’s a day for change, and that we want to be the agents of the history that we don’t want to repeat.”
So, as Juneteenth has emerged as a holiday for celebration and education, next up should be a 1619 celebration to commemorate the year that the first enslaved Africans landed on these shores.
During an August in the future. In a park near you.