Juneteenth: Unlearning White Lies From the Classroom

Juneteenth: Unlearning White Lies From the Classroom (Photo courtesy of Obse Abebe)

If I have learned anything from the American education system, it’s that history is written by the victors. The white victors.

Learning this required me to unlearn what I had been taught about American history — especially the Black history of this country. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t completely naive. I knew many of the lessons I sat through didn’t capture the full experience of Black Americans.

However, I wasn’t that cynical either. Even if the curriculum and my teachers omitted certain information, I still assumed they would do the bare minimum — not blatantly lie.

I was wrong.

Up until my freshman year of high school in June 2020, it was my understanding that the Emancipation Proclamation released all enslaved people within a matter of months. I discovered through TikTok, and some of my own follow up research that it took years for some enslaved people to be liberated.

One of the longest delays happened in Texas, where enslaved people had to wait two additional years for freedom. Their long-overdue liberation is celebrated and marked by Juneteenth.

However, what does it say about American schools that I learned all of that in June 2020, and through TikTok of all places? Previous teachers of mine have mentioned and even celebrated Christopher Columbus Day; but they never mentioned Juneteenth.

I wish I could say that was where the lies ended, but that would be a lie in and of itself.

In the last school year, I discovered through my AP United States History course that the Emancipation Proclamation only guaranteed freedom to enslaved people in rebelling Confederate territory. This not only continued slavery in Union states, but it also exposed the Proclamation’s true purpose: a strategic tactic meant to prevent Confederates from enlisting enslaved people in their army.

It hurts that even when I learned about Juneteenth and felt secure about my knowledge of the Proclamation, this bombshell was dropped on me. 

I don’t think teachers understand what this does to students like me; Black and brown students who rarely see people like us talked about outside of the context of oppression. To not only rarely have empowering representation, but to also be lied to about our history —  our Black history —  felt like a betrayal.

By not teaching me Black history and/or rewriting parts of it to favor the white victors, my so-called educators are conditioning me. Omitting the reality of the Emancipation Proclamation and how it didn’t guarantee universal or immediate Black Liberation perpetuates the idea that racism and slavery ended in 1863.

Juneteenth is an inspirational representation of Black resistance and Black joy, two powerful tools that some wouldn’t want in the hands of people like me. From the cookouts to the mutual aid organizing, our Juneteenth festivities make their apprehension understandable because such unity is a testament to Black persistence. It’s a statement that we are still here, and we will keep celebrating to remind those who come after that we aren’t going anywhere. 

I was conditioned to believe that my resistance isn’t valid. But it is. I was conditioned to believe that my joy isn’t precious. But it is.

Black joy and Black resistance have always been and will always be important. It’s important on days when the lurking shadow of racism overwhelms me and slavery taunts me through the orange jumpsuits of the prison-industrial complex. It’s important when I choose where to spend money and come across a Black-owned business. It’s important when I walk into school and remember that people will see me as Black first and a student second.

Learning about Juneteenth was empowering — something I have rarely felt in class. However, it’s also introduced a question that still eats away at me: when will I get to be a student and not my own teacher?

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