Juneteenth: Acknowledging the past and crafting a path towards restorative justice
International scholar, author and activist Joyce Hope Scott highlights the history of Juneteenth and the urgent call for reparations
By Molly Gluck
The Juneteenth holiday commemorates the end of racial slavery in the United States — and also presents the opportunity to reflect on the progress that has been made and the work that lies ahead to address the ongoing problem of global racism and injustice.
In the Q&A below, Joyce Hope Scott, a clinical professor of African American studies at Boston University, sheds light on the history and significance of Juneteenth — and digs into the urgent call to advance reparative justice for African enslavement. Specifically, Joyce Hope Scott focuses in on reparations and reparatory justice through the lens of her scholarship, research and advocacy work as the co-director and co-founder of the International Network of Scholars and Activists for Afrikan Reparations (INOSAAR) — a reparations consultancy and advocacy group that delivers a series of impact-related activities and usable tools of direct benefit to global activist organizations, community groups and scholars invested in the struggle for reparative and restorative justice. In addition to explaining reparations in terms of its meaning, history, and necessity — Joyce Hope Scott also addresses common misconceptions, disinformation and harmful narratives surrounding restorative justice, underscores the urgency on a national and global scale, and outlines specific outcomes and next-steps for activating positive change and healing.
Can you please provide background on the history and significance of Juneteenth?
Over the decades, Juneteenth has come to represent a day of liberation, a second Independence Day long celebrated and memorialized as such in the African American community. Juneteenth (short for “June Nineteenth”) is the oldest nationally-celebrated commemoration of the end of racial slavery in the United States. The Emancipation Proclamation issued in 1863, outlawing chattel slavery in the U.S., was a momentous occasion for African Americans and abolitionist allies. Despite its great welcome and potential, the Emancipation was not implemented in places still under Confederate control at the time. One such place was the Confederate state of Texas. In that state, enslaved people would not be free until two years later on June 19, 1865, when some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. The army announced to more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state that they were free by executive decree. To the newly-freed people, this day came to be known as “Juneteenth,” a word embracing the month of June and the date of the 19th.
In your opinion, what contexts, challenges and achievements should be recognized as we celebrate Juneteenth?
Today, we should see Juneteenth as a moment to re-focus on ongoing national injustice and anti-Black racism. Juneteenth is a celebration of African American freedom. It is a day to publicly remember honored ancestors, Black people who, despite the constant brutality and violation against their personhood — both corporal and spiritual — insisted on their humanity. With President Biden’s naming of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, followed by Massachusetts and several other states, Juneteenth can be recognized as a historical site of memory for all Americans, a reminder of a people’s persistence, resilience and spiritual beauty, of their righteous quest to hold Americans accountable to the moral visions of their founding. These achievements are encouraging steps forward in acknowledgment of African Americans’ contributions to the nation and local society. It also foregrounds for the nation the distance that remains to be traversed on this journey toward equality, racial justice, African American restitution, dignity, and true citizenship.
Despite progress and momentum in addressing the ongoing problem of global racism and injustice, significant work still lies ahead. Reparations have been called for as a critical initiative to advance restorative justice. How do you define reparations and reparatory justice in terms of its meaning, history and necessity?
Reparations should be envisioned as a relational practice of healing spiritual, moral, and material harm. Many Black people are still living with compounded trauma from daily experience with every system of white supremacy; therefore, the trauma is hardly “post.” And while there is a demand for restitution and restorative justice, I agree with reparation scholars and activists who maintain that Black people must engage in a process of self-healing through a concentrated engagement of rematriation — the physical and spiritual rehabilitation that reconnects individuals with the traditional knowledge and spiritual epistemology of their ancestors.
In any efforts toward reparations, there must be recognition that while much has been transformed in our society in the cause of equality and greater justice, the nature of the African American experience is still defined by alienation, homelessness, dispossession and search for spiritual wholeness. These are defining markers, omnipresent in the African-American experience.
The call for reparations of necessity include reckoning, restitution and reparative justice for (1) crimes against humanity represented by the trafficking, enslavement, physical, mental, and spiritual violations committed against Africans and African-descended people historically, and (2) the continued legacy and practice of inequality and abuse that reverberate therefrom against African Americans through systemic racism.
Put simply, reparations arguments advocate that we account for and acknowledge the fact that our nation’s economic foundations and socio-cultural and political institutions were established upon thefts and violations committed against African-descended people. Surely, there must be a recognition of the need to account for both the wrongs and harm that has been done in the past — and that is still being done today — in order to facilitate proper redress. Advocating for reparations does not predetermine what such acknowledgement or redress requires, but rather insists that acknowledgement must occur.
The Urgent Call for Restorative Justice
From this perspective, consideration of “how reparations should unfold,” I subscribe to the recommendations stated in the legislative bill HR-40, which envisions a process of engaging in a dialogue at the governmental, and other institutional levels, about the historically-instituted (and ongoing) infringements and deprivations of the rights of full citizenship for a particular class of people in our society, i.e. African Americans. This perspective on reparations insists that it is a reckoning with the national conscience and a socio-moral rectification whose time has, indeed, come.
There is now a global debate focused on all those nations who built their wealth by denying Black people humanity; this is a call for reparative justice. Deliberately ignoring this issue for so long in the past cannot logically form the basis of denial in the present. As historian Ana Lucia Araujo has noted, to this day no former slave society in the Americas, no former enslaved African descendants, and no African nation has ever received any form of reparations for the Atlantic slave trade.
Full reparation for slavery can never be made — the depth and impact of the inhumanity of slavery and the violence and dispossession that accrued to Black people in its aftermath was so deep that no adequate repair can be achieved. Nevertheless, efforts must be made at providing restitution and restorative justice for Black people. We can begin to identify some methods of healing. When we speak of reparations, it must be understood that the destructive power of chattel slavery was a system of theft by European peoples that seized every aspect of Black humanity in the process of building white wealth. Chattel slavery involved soul-theft in addition to wealth, and for those whose financial assets and humanity was stolen, there should be compensation.
Historical and Ongoing Patterns of Dispossession
The reality that society, in general, is implicated in the ongoing oppression and persecution of Black Americans is abundantly clear. The pattern of dispossession is strongly evident. Not only were former slave owners given reparations right after the Civil War, but their descendants and others have continued to profit from societal opportunities and initiatives afforded to them because of systemic racism and white supremacist ideologies. These injustices include government and local anti-Black de jure/de facto segregationist policies against African American home ownership. As a result of privileges made available to white people — including ensured housing as well as opportunities in education, politics and more, white people were able to acquire and maintain generational wealth.
Black Americans were, to the contrary, thwarted in their efforts to build wealth, heal and rehabilitate from enslavement and the brutalization of white terrorist acts. Furthermore, in the context of post-slavery, there are numerous examples of communities built by freed Black people being destroyed by white mob violence, for example: Tulsa, Oklahoma; Wilmington, North Carolina; Springfield, Ohio; Rosewood, Florida; and Forsyth, Georgia — to name a few. This violent destruction and theft call for restitution and reparative justice.
Part of your advocacy work is to challenge political and media disinformation about the meaning of reparation. Can you please shed light on common misconceptions and disinformation surrounding reparations?
An argument that now is not the time to consider reparations reminds us of the gradualist argument for desegregating schools and extending equal rights to African Americans during the civil rights era.
National Narratives Around Reparations
The argument then was that America could only take civil rights and racial equity slowly and in small doses — spanning over another 50 to 100 years! The status quo Jim Crow laws including restrictive voting rights and equal pay for equal work had already been in place for nearly 100 years. When the 13th Amendment passed, slavery merely took another form as a transmutation into convict labor, share-cropping, Jim Crow segregation and today — mass incarceration. The loophole in the 13th Amendment made it possible for Black people to be reclassified as criminals instead of slaves, and pressured them into a new servitude as forced laborers via semi-slavery for another near 100 years.
In 2001, at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, the world declared the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Slavery to be Crimes Against Humanity and that Reparations were due to the descendants of the victims. African people were kidnapped and brought to the Americas (including to the United States); they were stripped of their language, religion, and culture; raped and tortured; and then subjected to a Jim Crow-era of lynchings, police brutality, inferior education, theft of land and other property, homelessness, and mediocre health care. These transgressions are, indeed, crimes against Black humanity which the nation must seek to repair and redress.
Based on your research, advocacy work and experiences, what specific outcomes would be most critical and/or urgent for achieving restorative justice and equity?
There is a diverse and dedicated international cadre of organizations advocating for reparations for African descended people who have been exploited globally by European imposed systems of white supremacy. The justification that these organizations use invariably focuses on the fact that European settlers invaded other territories, brutally dispossessed indigenous peoples of their land, violently enslaved them as laborers and imported and enslaved laborers from the African continent and exploited them for their own benefit and development.
As an African American scholar, I am specifically concerned with social justice and facilitating an inclusive narrative of our nation. Thus, my primary reparation focus is within the context of how the system of white supremacy and anti-Black racism that emerged within the continental United States has and continues to operate to the detriment of African descended people — and how restorative justice can be achieved.
Current and Forward-Looking Progress
That said, I am encouraged by the fact that CARICOM Nations as a region that suffered slavery have launched a Reparations Initiative. For the first time in history, CARICOM and the African Union (AU) have held joint talks on a range of common political, economic and social issues including reparations. In addition, California has done this on a state level. The package of reparatory benefits recommended by the California Reparations Task Force is a very good starting point. These recommendations include creating a state-subsidized mortgage program to guarantee low rates for qualifying African American applicants, free health care, free tuition to California colleges and universities, and scholarships to African American high school graduates to cover four years of undergraduate education. They reflect collaborative work across racial and professional levels and a commitment to the principles of social justice. Furthermore, HR-40 is an example at the national level of an initiative to study and create a framework for reparations.
In my wildest dreams, though, I would like to see an International Reparations Summit that brings together all of the diverse organizations and entities advocating for reparations under one roof, tasked with crafting a worldwide reparations strategy for African-descended people, with a central coordination or clearinghouse body mediating and harmonizing the interests of all parties. The goal would be to create an aggregated international strategy that becomes the blueprint for pursuing reparations for African-descended people worldwide.
Acknowledging and Addressing the Past
Many in the United States today believe that we now live in a post-racial society; thus, many hold to the belief that they should not be responsible for the historical evils committed by white slave owners, since neither they nor their ancestors owned slaves or profited from slavery.
However, there was no voluntary mass immigration to the United States before 1860. There was nothing to come to except wilderness and Native Americans resisting the theft of their land. By 1860 the seizure of Native-American lands and the forced labor of enslaved Africans had transformed the United States into the land of opportunity for European immigrants. They were desirables who were encouraged to come and make America their land. Europeans and all other immigrants that have come to America since, then, are the continuing beneficiaries of the slaveocracy that created America as it is today. As participants in the ongoing economic bounty of the slavery upon which it was founded, one might argue that immigrants are, in fact, implicated and should engage in any reparations policies this nation adopts.
Reparations Beyond Monetary Recompense
When considering specific reparations outcomes, I will reinforce that reparations are not only about monetary recompense. While monetary recompense cannot be seen as satisfying the needs to be addressed in the ideal of reparations, the financial is an important element of the reparations formula that should be part and parcel of a package of benefits provided to the descendants of enslaved African Americans.
Other related economic benefits might include Land Restoration and/or Replacement. Land is not just a material asset to sustain life and promote survival, but also a site of spiritual renewal and continuity. In 1865, the freed people of Edisto Island appealed to Union General Oliver Howard when a meeting was organized to discuss a new proposal to deprive the freed people of recently-promised land as reparation for their unpaid labor and other dehumanization. This committee of “uneducated” freed people was mindful of the enlightened precepts of ancient African fundamental belief in the inseparability of man from nature — i.e. land is not only home to the living, but also the sanctuary of the ancestors and the gods. They responded clearly to Howard’s proposal saying, “Landlessness is not the condition of really free men.”
In our quest for reparatory justice today, we can be no less steadfast and diligent in our insistence upon restoration or replacement of property and land stolen as a non-negotiable tenant of any proposed reparations package.
In closing, I want to reiterate that Juneteenth also foregrounds for the nation the distance that remains to be traveled on this journey toward equity, racial justice, Black dignity and true citizenship.
For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. For research, thought leadership and information from the Boston University African American Studies Program, follow @BU_AFAM. Follow the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research at @AntiracismCtr. Follow International Network of Scholars and Activists for Afrikan Reparations (INOSAAR) on Twitter at @inosaar. Please find more background on INOSAAR from Joyce Hope Scott here:
The International Network of Scholars and Activists for Afrikan Reparations (INOSAAR) is a reparations consultancy and advocacy group. The central purpose of the INOSAAR is to advocate for and provide consultancy on reparations and reparatory justice for African enslavement in collaboration with activists, scholars and African heritage communities. Our advocacy is conducted through the creation of forums in which different voices from around the world are brought into conversation — for example through workshops, seminars and international conferences. The work conducted in these spaces is part of our collective, action-based learning.
Our current work grows out of a desire to showcase two emerging reparative concepts, neither of which have received the full attention they deserve within current global debates about reparations and reparative justice for African enslavement:
The first relates to ‘rematriation’; meaning the process by which the descendants of those who were forcibly displaced from Africa as a result of European-led enslavement return culturally and spiritually to the African continent.
The second relates to ‘planetary repairs’; meaning the ways in which the struggle for reparative justice is linked to concerns with ecocide, environmentalism and sustainable development.
We demonstrate impact innovation by approaching reparations through the unexplored areas of culture, spirituality, environmentalism and creativity. Concretely, we aim to: deliver a series of impact-related activities and usable tools of direct benefit to activist organizations, community groups and scholars invested in the struggle for reparative and restorative justice for African enslavement.