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Jeneé Osterheldt

Juneteenth and the meaning of Black liberation in Boston

As we celebrate the freedom of enslaved people in America, we consider what it means to be Black and free.

(Clockwise from top left)  Khymani James, Malia Lazu, Athena Vaughn, Julia Mejia, Gavin Smith, Jessicah Pierre
(Clockwise from top left) Khymani James, Malia Lazu, Athena Vaughn, Julia Mejia, Gavin Smith, Jessicah PierreErin Clark, Pat Greenhouse and Suzanne Kreiter

Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, Juneteenth.

June 19, 1865, is when it happened. More than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, two months after the surrender of Robert E. Lee, enslaved Black people in Texas found out they were finally free.

More than 150 years later, we have far more freedoms than our enslaved ancestors. Our privileges are plentiful compared to our elders of the Jim Crow era who were told they were free and then murdered, denied basic decency, redlined, and criminalized for daring to live freely.

Yet the fullness of freedom is something we as Black people have yet to experience, even in 2021. America is no one’s freedom land, not even for the white man. He may have power, but I don’t believe one can ever know freedom when one’s reign rests on the pain of others.

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Black liberation is a destination not yet reached, but we celebrate the freedoms we have in our joy, in our dreams, in the little ways of everyday living as we fight for true equity and full emancipation. We continuously reimagine what freedom will truly mean once supremacy is abolished. Every piece of freedom we’ve ever won has freed others, meaning Black liberation will liberate everyone. So we love righteously enough to fight for the right to be Black, American, and free.

What does Black freedom look like? Black folk in Boston will tell you.

Khymani James: "There needs to be change in the fabric of society for Black liberation."
Khymani James: "There needs to be change in the fabric of society for Black liberation." Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Khymani James, youth advocate, former Boston School Committee student representative, Boston Latin Academy Class of ‘21

Black liberation means dismantling racist, oppressive systems that were built to suppress Black people and keep them from thriving. If the foundation is rotten, the whole thing is going to be rotten. But that’s just one side of the coin. It also means engaging in some long- needed difficult discussions about the historical and contemporary events that have showed us what society has done to its Black people. It’s about removing financial barriers and racist housing policies and gentrification and making sure we are funding our public schools correctly so that students are also given support they need.

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Black liberation means we do the necessary and hard work so that we can come to a point where police officers aren’t shooting Black people for fun, where Black parents don’t have to send their children miles and miles away to get a good education, where Black children don’t have to grow up hearing stereotypes and negative stigmas about their people, where Black children don’t have to sit in history class and hear all Black history is about how the white man subjugated us. There needs to be change in the fabric of society for Black liberation.

Athena Vaughn: "To be liberated shows me the change that can happen, that should happen, and should have happened a long time ago."
Athena Vaughn: "To be liberated shows me the change that can happen, that should happen, and should have happened a long time ago." Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Athena Vaughn, cofounder and president Trans Resistance MA

Black liberation. The word liberation is diverted from the word liberated and it means to be free. As a Black trans woman it means so much to me because it means to be seen, to be heard, to feel safe. There is so much trans death, especially among trans women of color. We have been overlooked for so long, ostracized, frowned upon, and disrespected.

Liberation for me, as Black trans woman who is trying to speak up for others who don’t feel they can, means to be free just to be me in my own space and enjoy who I am and the people around me. It means to create spaces to create hope to give back. To be liberated shows me the change that can happen, that should happen, and should have happened a long time ago. Stop treating us as a number. Give us our accolades. Equity and equality is what we need to be liberated.

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What Black liberation means to me: Athena Vaughn
Athena Vaughn, founder of Trans Resistance MA, talks about what Black liberation means to her. (Video produced by Shelby Lum / Globe Staff, Reporting by Jeneé Osterheldt / Globe Staff)
Malia Lazu: "Liberation is to truly believe you have an equal chance in the world and that your history and experiences have true value."
Malia Lazu: "Liberation is to truly believe you have an equal chance in the world and that your history and experiences have true value." Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Malia Lazu, CEO of The Lazu Group, nurturing equitable corporate culture, MIT Sloan lecturer

For myself, Black liberation can be defined as the self determination of Black people. Black liberation is unconditional love for blackness, a rejection of the white gaze. Liberation is to truly believe you have an equal chance in the world and that your history and experiences have true value. Liberation is a culmination of honoring the past, being healthy in the present and curious about the future.

Assata Shakur wrote, “Part of being a revolutionary is creating a vision that is more humane. That is more fun, too. That is more loving. It’s really working to create something beautiful.” Liberation is living these values. Frederick Douglass, for example, speaks of a moment while he was being beaten by a slave breaker and he realized he was bigger and stronger than the man with the whip. His reasonable response to defend himself led to his internal and eventual physical liberation.

Liberation is not given to people. It can only be realized by the person who needs it.

Jessicah Pierre: "If this country truly wants to value Black lives, then we must be given the same access and privileges as our white counterparts."
Jessicah Pierre: "If this country truly wants to value Black lives, then we must be given the same access and privileges as our white counterparts." Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Jessicah Pierre, head of communications, Black Economic Council of Massachusetts

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To me, Black liberation is all about access. Access to build generational wealth, access to express our joy, pain, sadness, and anger without fear of repercussions, access to happiness, access to healing, access to institutional power, access to good health and stable housing, access to just be.

Slavery ended over a century ago, but limiting access has been an effective and legal tool to continue to keep Black people in America in chains. If this country truly wants to value Black lives, then we must be given the same access and privileges as our white counterparts. Or else, America will never live up to its values of freedom and justice for all until Black people are liberated.

What Black liberation means to me: Jessicah Pierre
Jessicah Pierre, director of strategic communications at the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, talks about what Black liberation means to her. (Video produced by Shelby Lum / Globe Staff, Reporting by Jeneé Osterheldt / Globe Staff)
Julia Mejia: "Black Liberation is in all of us who commit to the work of leaving a better world for our children than the one we inherited."
Julia Mejia: "Black Liberation is in all of us who commit to the work of leaving a better world for our children than the one we inherited."Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Julia Mejia, at-large city councilor

Black Liberation isn’t something that we just talk about during Black History Month or during Juneteenth. It is something that we live and breathe 24/7, 365 days a year.

Black Liberation means not just occupying space as an Afro-Latina who claims her Black roots, it means actively creating space for people like me to not just survive, but thrive in our city. It means pushing the city to come to terms with its past so that we can move forward to a more just and caring future.

Black Liberation is in all of us who commit to the work of leaving a better world for our children than the one we inherited.

What Black liberation means to me: Julia Mejia
Julia Mejia, At-Large City Councilor in Boston, talks about what Black liberation means to her. (Video produced by Shelby Lum / Globe Staff, Reporting by Jeneé Osterheldt / Globe Staff)
Gavin Smith: "Being able to be yourself unapologetically, to be unapologetically Black, that would be the ultimate form of liberation."
Gavin Smith: "Being able to be yourself unapologetically, to be unapologetically Black, that would be the ultimate form of liberation."Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Gavin Smith, 34, head of school, Boston Latin Academy

I think about Black liberation all the time. I tend to think about what Black spaces look like, and what I am like and what others I know are like in those spaces and I think that it is in those spaces that we are at our freest to be our true selves. Black people have this way of navigating the world where we are always so thoughtful in our approach to things — a survival tactic passed on from generation to generation.

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You go anywhere in this city and you have Black people who want to do well and who live and die by Boston. So many of my students don’t want to leave. 80 percent of our students stay in Boston. People genuinely want to be here and they want to thrive here. But I don’t think there is enough intentionality done by people in power to make that happen.

So being able to create spaces for dialogue and celebrating the richness of our very diverse cultures and our very diverse perspectives is really important. I think everyone that I know of the diaspora just likes to see Black people winning and Black people happy and Black people thriving and any space where that happens is home. Being able to be yourself unapologetically, to be unapologetically Black, that would be the ultimate form of liberation.

What Black liberation means to me: Gavin Smith
Gavin Smith, Head of School at Boston Latin Academy, says what Black liberation means to him. (Video produced by Shelby Lum / Globe Staff, Reporting by Jeneé Osterheldt / Globe Staff)

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.