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On Juneteenth: Creating a community of diversity and inclusion

Esther Triggs, Interlochen’s associate director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, reflects on her own experiences as a Black woman, the significance of Juneteenth, and the opportunity to learn about each other and celebrate our differences.

Esther Triggs

Dear Campus Community,

On June 19, 1865, enslaved African-Americans learned they were free, over two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed by President Abraham Lincoln. Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day, Liberation Day, and Jubilee Day, became a day to celebrate freedom.

As I reflect on my early years of growing up in western Michigan and how my understanding of my identity as a Black woman was shaped by my experiences, one truth is abundantly clear: I was never taught the history of my ancestors. I first became aware of Juneteenth only ten years ago, when my mother told me she was going to a Juneteenth celebration in Michigan. I was confused by what the holiday represented and quickly began my own research.

Juneteenth began in Galveston, Texas, and has since spread throughout the country. The day calls for us to reflect on the blood shed by the enslaved, while celebrating the freedom won by African-Americans. Through music, art, dance, parades, and food (especially red food, like red velvet cake), Juneteenth marks both liberation and remembrance.

As I learned about this remarkable day, I grew frustrated at first, then contemplative. Why was I not taught about this holiday? Was it a curricular oversight? Was it out of fear? As a Black child in a predominantly white community, I recognized the benefits I’d missed to reflect on my heritage and my culture, to celebrate a moment in time when Black people felt free.

The only Black holiday I remember learning about in elementary school was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. My father always said we were related by marriage to Dr. King. Whether true or not, I shared this information with my third grade classmates. My friends laughed and pointed at me, retorting that if I was related, I would be sitting on a throne. Clearly they misunderstood the reference to his last name. They also misunderstood my need to connect my identity with someone relatable.

Years later, I would begin to unpack the devastating effects of not having someone to look up to, not having someone to go to, and feeling alone because I couldn’t see myself in the history I had been taught. Race is a false classification of people, unrooted in any biological or scientific truth. The concept of race was created as a classification of human beings with the purpose of giving power to white people and to legitimize the dominance of white people over non-white people. By celebrating the freedom of enslaved African-Americans, we as Americans can celebrate our ability to grow, to change, and to right even a grievous wrong.

This week, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to establish June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day, a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. I encourage all of us to embrace this holiday as an opportunity to create space for cultural competency. It is through that lens we will begin to move ourselves toward gaining more understanding of others and ultimately ourselves.

It is imperative to take a step forward on the path that leads us to comprehension of our own history as well as the history of so many. It is my honor to support our students not only in their growth as citizens of the world but to help them understand they are never alone. Through learning about each other and celebrating our differences, we can create a community of diversity and inclusion.

I hope you will find opportunities this weekend to reflect on how it may have felt for the enslaved African-Americans to finally be free. I hope you feel their relief and their joy. I hope that you laugh, dance, and eat good food.

Be well,

Esther Triggs
Associate Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion