Skip to main content

Juneteenth and The Impact of Black Music

New Jersey

By: Dr. Phyllis Bivins-Hudson 

May allowed me to really explore and discover some interesting and startling information about missing children. Initially, I decided to talk about this topic because, at one point in my childhood, I, too, was a missing child to a non-custodial parent.

What I learned from this current experience, among other things, is that there is so much information on this topic that no matter how much information I came across and shared with you, it was all still just cursory reporting.

Nonetheless, the information was and is essential. Hopefully, no one will ever have a need for this information, however, if so, I hope it will serve you well.

You will recall I shared quite a bit of statistics, reasons for abductions, how to prevent them, organizations that support families in crisis. Finally, I left you with additional information on human trafficking, which brings me to an announcement.

Because the issue of missing children is so important, I will be engaging my Instagram audience in a 3-part miniseries where I will interview Wincey Terry, who has been working with human trafficking since 1988.

The first of those interviews will commence on Thursday, July 13, and each Thursday for the remainder of July, which will include the 20th and the 27th @ drpgbhudson on my Instagram live show, Flying on Broken Wings, Thursday Sidebar. I hope you will join us, and come prepared with your questions and comments.  

While our June conversation will shift from missing children, it will continue to be serious in nature. So, for June, we will spend some time talking about Juneteenth and the Impact of Black Music. By now, many of you will say, "We all know about Juneteenth."

But what I have learned in that regard is that those of us who know about Juneteenth know what we know, yet there are still millions of people who don't know. Therefore, like other celebrations, acknowledgments, recognitions, etc., that other people continue to engage in to keep the memories alive, we, too, will be among that group by keeping Juneteenth alive.

For the month, we will take a look at the origins and progressions of Juneteenth and the impact music has on this celebration.

While we're all glad that word finally reached our brothers and sisters in Galveston Bay, Texas, we remain appalled but not surprised that it took around two years or more for the word to reach our enslaved ancestors. And because that day occurred on June 19,  1865, it became known as Juneteenth, Freedom Day, African American Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day, or Black Independence Day.

As of 2021, it has become a national holiday. And its name is another example of our people's characteristic creativity, which is a blend of June and nineteenth.

This interesting quote from Major General Gordon Granger, Union General, June 19, 1865, reads: "The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.

This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer." But I contend that this proclamation has yet to be fully honored.

Juneteenth says we are free. But what we have experienced from our government, many of our countrymen, some of our neighbors, our co-workers, etc., is nothing more than a perfunctory courtesy so as to maintain the "I feel good because I've done my duty" syndrome. Sure, we have come a long way from having to move to the other side of the street or sit in the back of the bus or drink from a different fountain.

The landscape's features changed but not for the betterment of the human condition. Therefore, it is up to us to keep Juneteenth alive. We must maintain its historical legacy and ensure it does not become a relic because we allow others to shame us into believing it is not worthy of celebration. Hence, the importance of sharing on platforms such as this.

Although freedom was initially declared to our enslaved ancestors in 1863, because of the self-serving, racist resistance of the people of Galveston Bay, Texas, that freedom would not come until 1865. In that regard, there are those in today's society, 158 years later, who still display racist views toward the freedoms that all of us should be able to take for granted.

And by nature, our people have always been a celebratory society of people, making Juneteenth a celebration noting no difference. In fact, the first Juneteenth celebrated in Galveston, Texas, involved church-centered community gatherings. Of course, as is customary in our culture, the celebrations became commercialized in the 20s and 30s and began to center on food festivals. Eventually, the traditions included public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, and singing songs such as Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Lift Every Voice and Sing.

As expected, these celebrations would not remain in the South, in fact, participants in the Great Migration, sometimes known as the Great Northward Migration or the Black Migration, which was the movement of 6 million African Americans out of rural Southern United States to urban Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1910 and 1970, brought with them these celebrations to the aforementioned parts of the country where the holiday began to grow and has continued to grow, becoming even more ingrained into the African American culture.

Because we have been intentional about keeping this part of our history alive, people of varying cultural backgrounds are learning more and more about Juneteenth and what it means to our culture.

Juneteenth is more significant than a one-day celebration for African Americans. It has been a catalyst for inspiring many African Americans who pushed through the post-emancipation period (1865-1877) with high hopes but expected struggle, as the nation itself was struggling during that period. However, as a people, we have always known struggle and how to cope with it.

Thus, during that period when many people may have given up, African Americans who had been formerly enslaved immediately sought to reunify their families, establish schools, run for political offices, push for progressive legislative changes and some were even audacious enough to sue their slaveowners for compensation.

So, while I still maintain that there has been change, I say also that Juneteenth played a pivotal role in pushing the envelope forward. The changes that occurred from that point of departure to where we have have been remarkable, nevertheless, there is still so much more to be done. Juneteenth is our country's other independence day, in fact, to many of us, it is the only independence day and has been celebrated for a long time.

Yet, there are still so many people of all cultural backgrounds, including our own, who have no idea what Juneteenth is, its impact, and its importance. But to those of us who do know, we understand that the acknowledgment of Juneteenth means that we also acknowledge the value and our spirit of never giving up, even when it appears that there is no hope left.

Part of the Juneteenth celebration includes music. Music is paramount to Black culture and Juneteenth is a time when music takes center stage. Our music has always been a way to tell our stories, whether a sad song to connote our struggles, an uplifting one to celebrate our victories, or a religious cry to ask our God for help. In any case, the music helps us to move the celebration to a place of liveliness and jubilation.

It is no secret that music has been a secret weapon for Black people, especially in challenging times. When enslaved Africans were forced to work from sun up until sundown on plantations, ships, and almost any type of manual labor imaginable, it was the music of the people that gave them the strength to keep on pushing to the other side.

It provided messages of plans for running away, messages of hope, as well as messages of freedom. Dr. Marcus Shepard, Ph.D., a professor and musician, comments, "As we look at the history of Black people in America, music has always been at the core of highlighting our struggles and triumphs as a community," and that such spirituals as Wade in the Water, Song of the Free, and Down in the River to Pray, he contends, "We explicitly know the field songs or the work songs… often had coded messages for people to understand what's going on."

 He declares that music played a dual role because it "has always been a form of resistance as well as a celebration at the same time." So, because these spirituals gave the enslaved comfort and direction during slavery, they became the kinds of songs sung in the first Juneteenth celebrations on June 19, 1865.

Black people were overjoyed, and because the Juneteenth celebrations were initially held in churches, the same spirituals they relied on to get them to the other side of enslavement were the same songs that became ingrained in the festivities of the Juneteenth celebrations.

But as Juneteenth celebrations grew, so did the music, which included more than just the spirituals that had been their comforters during times of troubled waters.

The evolution of the celebrations, including the songs, became a reflection of the relationship African Americans have with music and the desire for freedom. And through many years, the powerful messages in the music have continued to provide us with both instruction and inspiration.

Even decades later, we still cling to many of those songs, which are akin to Juneteenth and worthy of celebration. Some of the bolder ones include: Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud, by James Brown, A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke, or R-e-s-p-e-c-t by Aretha Franklin, or To Be Young, Gifted and Black by Nina Simone, and who can forget Strange Fruit by Billy Holiday, even We Shall Overcome.

Those who were members of the initial struggle, as well as the more contemporary artists whose songs have become etched in our minds, knew and know that music has a variety of properties, including healing powers, resilience, language, and the ability to amplify our pleas for justice and an end to injustices. So, Juneteenth and music are cohabitants. No surprise there, either!

Well, this year, I, too, will be doing my part. In fact, on June 19, as the keynote for Hackensack Meridian Health, I will be delivering spoken word. I hope you will join me. I will post the link in my Instagram bio @drpgbhudson when the link is available. Please join me. I'd love to know that you are there.

Until next time, keep flying on your own wings.