What Are Other Names for Juneteenth? The U.S. Is Betraying the Spirit of ‘Jubilee Day’
Dating back millennia, the Jubilee was a momentous celebration, a year when land was to be returned, debts forgiven, and enslaved people were to be set free. Announced by the loud blast of a ram’s horn, biblical scholars note, the Jubilee year was grounded in the idea of freedom, orchestrating an economic, cultural, and moral reordering of society. It’s fitting, then, that Juneteenth is often referred to as Jubilee Day.
In January 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation abolished chattel slavery, declaring “all persons held as slaves” to be “forever free.” But it wasn’t until two years later, on June 19, 1865, that news of liberation finally reached enslaved people in Galveston, Texas. Juneteenth, sometimes called Black Independence Day or Freedom Day, honors this actual ending of slavery.
In a way, the Emancipation Proclamation functioned as Black Americans’ first and only Jubilee — in fact, “Jubilee” is what formerly enslaved people called the phase that followed the Civil War. Abolition put an end to an entire economy of exploited labor that essentially built the modern capitalist world. But the Emancipation Proclamation went further than requiring Confederate states to simply recognize slavery’s abolition — it also instructed the United States government to “maintain” the freedom of formerly enslaved people, and to do “no act or acts to repress such persons” or any “efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” Today, in a stark deviation from President Abraham Lincoln’s instructions, the government is still sanctioning and facilitating the oppression of Black people.
Sharecropping, convict leasing, medical racism, mass incarceration, policing, and other racist institutions trapped Black Americans in cycles of debt peonage, indentured servitude, and suffering. Forced to debt-finance public goods and their own incarceration, Black folks bear the brunt of student, medical, and criminal legal debt. For-profit colleges, hospitals, police departments, and the prison industrial complex all bank (literally) on their schemes to indebt Black communities. Just a decade ago, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, racist housing practices and job loss wiped out over half of Black wealth.
As a result, today’s Black-white homeownership gap is wider than it was over 50 years ago. From the three-fifths compromise to prison and racial gerrymandering, politicians have repeatedly dismantled Black political power, making voting rights weaker for Black Americans than they were in 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was first passed. The scourge of gun violence and the school-to-prison pipeline have stolen the futures of Black children. Black girls are disappearing at an unconscionable rate and Black trans women have a life expectancy around the age required to be president: 35. If you’re Black, your odds of incarceration increase nearly fivefold. If you’re a Black woman in New York City, your likelihood of dying in childbirth increases eightfold. Sadly, Black Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population and 40% of people on death row.
Rhetorically and literally, this nation is shackling the people it supposedly freed. More than a century and a half later, the United States continues to betray the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation and a host of other vaunted documents. The federal government has a responsibility to facilitate a massive restructuring of society. A choreographed shift toward racial and economic justice comparable to the scale of pain it inflicted. A true revival of the Jubilee spirit.
A racial and moral reordering of American society will require serious action from the government. If it truly cared about righting centuries of wrongs, leaders would begin by broadly canceling costly household debts and also paying the legitimate debt owed to Black Americans — reparations.
While the call for President Biden to eliminate federal student debt has permeated national discourse, he has stalled, failing to keep even his own paltry campaign promise. Black farmers and ranchers have lost 90% of their farmland and hundreds of billions of dollars in the last century alone. Now, despite toiling this land amid generations of discrimination, lawsuits by white farmers have blocked needed debt-relief and pandemic aid allocated to Black farmers.
The Internal Revenue Service could establish stricter metrics on nonprofit hospitals to ensure medical debtors, who are mostly Black folks in the South, get their rightly owed financial assistance through charity-care policies that qualify many for “free or discounted care.” And after being locked out of the benefits of the GI bill, many Black veterans lost out on the chance of wide-scale relief due to complex eligibility requirements. This same pattern of indebtedness can be said for back-rent and housing debt, credit card debt and payday loans.
Pandemic waivers that delivered meals to students in K-12 public schools are set to expire at the end of the month, putting low-income children back at risk of owing debt for sustenance. Energy bills and other essential utilities pile up across the country as majority-Black neighborhoods in cities like Chicago hold water debts 10 times higher than majority-white areas.
These debts are all illegitimate and shouldn’t exist for anyone. It’s time for them to be discharged, erased, and done away with, alongside a reconstruction of our society and economy so that future generations are not targets for financial predation. Radically transforming our economy and deepest social priorities may feel like a distant political reality given the current obstructionists in Congress and a Biden administration that’s determined to wield as little of its executive authority as possible. But the moral urgency of a Jubilee can’t wait for leaders in Washington to miraculously see the light. We must organize to build power so the demand for a new social contract can persevere.
What has been stolen from Black people since the first enslaved people were brought to these shores in 1619 — money, labor, resources, time, land, life, and dignity — can never be returned, but the country must still make amends to the descendants of enslaved people by ensuring they posses not just the means of survival but the means of freedom. The debt this nation, and the world, owes to Black Americans must be paid in full and without delay. The systematic exploitation of Black Americans must end so this country can be reborn and a real age of emancipation commenced at last.
Braxton Brewington is a community organizer and spokesperson for the Debt Collective.
Co-published with Teen Vogue.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of EHRP and its management.