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This Juneteenth, We Must Undo the Toxic Narratives Placed on Black People

6 minute read
Walters is an artist, writer, and facilitator in Oakland, CA. She is the creator of the Black Thought Project and the Centering Blackness Fellow at Maven Collaborative. Watson is a musician, filmmaker, and cultural strategist currently serving as director of the Media 2070 project at Free Press. Born and raised in South Carolina, she’s now based in South Phoenix, Arizona

This Juneteenth, Black folx will gather as we have for decades to celebrate ourselves, our ancestors, all we are, and the joy that abounds. Others will have a day off work and maybe do something meaningful to honor Black people—but our breath is not bated.

More than a cause for celebration, Juneteenth is a reminder that repair is long overdue. We need a call to create a future where this society is free of anti-Blackness; a call to cultivate a world where Black people are thriving in every way.

It’s been three years since Juneteenth became widely known beyond Black America, and yet the discourse around slavery and its legacy has only devolved. The stantiate of Florida has banned the teaching of African American history. Books and even poems by Black authors are being pulled from the classroom.

Read more: The Heavy Cost of Banning Books About Black Children

That’s why we cannot let Juneteenth become just another summer day off. Juneteenth must be a moment of deep reflection, truth-gathering, and actionable change, particularly for those in positions of media and cultural power.

On May 6, 2023, the California state reparations task force named media and culture as one of the sectors to be addressed in recommendations for state-level reparations. Narratives of Black inferiority were the pretext for slavery, and those same stories continue to keep us trapped in cycles of systemic discrimination. We believe that Juneteenth is a vital opportunity to understand the past while tenderly cultivating new narratives that center Black truths in three critical steps:

Moving from false representation to repair

Our nation’s media system has had anti-Blackness—the structural, systemic, and cultural dehumanizing of people who are Black—in its DNA. Early colonial newspapers stayed in business using the revenue from paid advertisements for enslaved Africans. Jim Crow-era papers regularly published false stories of sexual assault and other offenses as front-page headlines, leading to lynchings of African Americans.

And it’s this systemic racism that continues to flow through American media today. According to a 2023 Pew Research study, just 6% of all reporting U.S. journalists are Black. This is, in large part, to do with low retention rates: Carla Murphy’s 2020 study, “The ‘Leavers’ Survey,” found that the majority of journalists of color included in the study left the profession at the mid-career point due to unfair treatment and pay.

Not to mention, Black-owned media outlets are deeply underfunded in comparison to their white corporate counterparts. A 2020 study by the Democracy Fund found that $1.1 billion in grants were awarded to the flagging journalism industry between 2013 and 2017, but just 8.1% was given to outlets that serve people of color, women, and LGBTQIA+ communities.

Still, the dominant media system continues to further profit from the myth of Black people’s unworthiness, inferiority, and threat to both individuals and society at large. For example: Donald Trump’s racism and anti-Blackness have been a hallmark of his public rhetoric, which cable news networks have prioritized due to the major boost in ratings and profits they get when he appears on screen.

These conditions require centering Black joy, power, and mobility, as the antidote to a long history of systemic media racism. Black people’s needs, desires, visions, and gifts are imperative to any repair process. We deserve to tell our stories in a way that reflects our very real self-love and care, and the way we see ourselves despite a society that tries to define us as subhuman. In order to achieve this, we must hold media ownership, editorial power, management power, editing power, production and distribution infrastructure, and end-to-end control of our own stories.

Creating a path towards intersectional reparations

To repair the narrative harm pushed onto us, broader reparations are necessary for Black communities, too—the immediacy of which is not lost on young people, who are three times more likely to support reparations than older generations. In Oakland, CA, the Black Thought Project asked youth to share their perspectives on how to reappropriate half the city’s police budget. They responded with demands for secure housing, the reopening of schools and libraries, food for all, and safe places to play and make art.

And yet, the new legislation emerging around the country in many places is doing the exact opposite, explicitly banning African American studies and anything that addresses the history and realities of systemic racism. As noted by activists Jhumpa Bhattacharya and Anne Price of Maven Collaborative, older generations are “using their comfort with anti-Blackness as a weapon to destroy democracy for the generations to come.” We must work towards a path of intersectional reparations that lays the groundwork of mobility and healing for not just our stories and our selves, but for the generations to come.

Transcending superficial calls for unity

If we are to successfully achieve racial justice, we need to create something that’s never existed before: A media system grounded in care as an antidote for harm.

It’s not enough to celebrate Juneteenth and the emancipation from slavery as an abstract call to unity. We are facing the prospect of an entire generation being misled from the true history of slavery and discrimination, and being doomed to repeat it.

The way to reflect the wholeness of Black people is to resource our ability to honor and cultivate our own narratives. That’s why the Media 2070 project is currently calling on the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the history of racism in its policymaking, in order to create the foundation for policy that directly redresses these harms. We need a mainstream media system that loves and elevates Black people. This means reflecting Black lived realities and histories that offer context and nuance for present-day stories. This means abolishing the crime beat, which Media 2070’s Tauhid Chappell describes as “racist, classist, fear-based clickbait masking as journalism.” This also means centering stories that reflect the whole humanity of Black people beyond flattening stereotypes which have been weaponized to justify regressive policies for more than 400 years.

We can’t keep doing storytelling and reporting as usual. It’s time to center the voices of Black people in society, to create spaces dedicated to Black truth-telling and expression—such as the Black Future Newsstand—and to finally begin the process of healing the deep generational wounds of slavery. Only then will we be aligned with the spirit of Black ancestors who danced in the streets upon learning of Emancipation in 1865.

This is how we can finally honor the story of Juneteenth with the gravity and action it deserves.

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