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Juneteenth: Lessons From Across the Pond

Nicola Biggerstaff

Earlier this week saw the third official celebration of Juneteenth, commemorating the abolition of slavery in the United States. The 19th of June marks the day that Union soldiers during the Civil War finally reached the isolated town of Galveston, Texas, to enforce President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all enslaved people of the town on that day in 1865. (It should be noted that slaveowners were aware of the proclamation by this time, choosing not to inform those enslaved until they were required to by force with the arrival of the Union army to the town.)

Juneteenth has only been celebrated as a federal holiday since 2021, in light of the new civil movement sparked by Black Lives Matter, with President Biden declaring the first new holiday since Martin Luther King Jr Day was declared in 1986. Also known as Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day, and Black Independence Day, celebrations to mark the occasion by minority communities have been recorded as far back as 1866, with large feasts and gatherings at local churches, as African Americans were still prohibited in many states from accessing other public spaces. Later celebrations have shifted to focus on education, spreading awareness that civil rights remain an ongoing issue, with the debate surrounding Critical Race Theory and education on slavery in conservative, republican states remaining a point of contention to this day.

Here in Scotland, we were not left unaffected by the Black Lives Matter movement, as thousands joined to march the streets in solidarity in the summer of 2020. As a direct result, questions were raised over Scotland’s historic links to the transatlantic slave trade, and the legacy this has left in our cities. So, has any progress been made recently? Have we done ourselves a disservice by leaving such an important socio-political issue behind when it was no longer a source of media attention and scrutiny?

Even here in Glasgow, the campaign to rename the streets of the city centre associated with those abhorrent times seems to have gone no further forward than when it first appeared several years ago. A cross-parliamentary group established to discuss these changes, despite a survey earlier this year suggesting that most people in Glasgow would be generally supportive of measures to improve awareness of the city’s links to slavery, have said they will not ‘rush’ to change the street names dedicated to tobacco lords and plantation locations.

This is a topic of discussion in Sorted. As an active participant in colonial activities, the framing of international aid in a future independent Scotland should take the form of International Restitution, in which aid is not an act of national generosity, but a moral obligation to make up for these historical atrocities. We propose that, as a relatively small nation which cannot make the sort of financial contributions we would like, we instead contribute in areas which we would establish as strong areas of economic trade in an independent Scotland. A good example of this would be in renewable energy, where we would develop further manufacturing capacity and technical expertise which would be made available to developing nations. Another potential area could be in healthcare, where and established National Health Company could provide equipment and medicine directly to nations, and have the ability to waive proprietary rights and patents on future treatments, thus cutting unjust costs in the face of, for example, a national health emergency such as a viral or bacterial outbreak. Identifying areas in which we can help, in a way that does not generate counterproductive, unbalanced international relations with developing nations who continue to suffer from the fallout and consequences of colonialism and the slave trade.

There is not enough discussion on Scotland’s role in the slave trade. It shouldn’t have taken me going off to study a history degree to become fully informed. It shouldn’t have taken the disproportionate harm and deaths of people of colour both here and thousands of miles away to bring this issue to our attention. And now, it is our duty as those who are inherently privileged to stay active and informed. We must look inward and assess our perceptions of the world around us, and we cannot look away when our fellow humans tell us they are continually being hurt through no fault of their own.

I would highly recommend Bought & Sold: Scotland, Jamaica and Slavery by Kate Phillipsto learn more about the role of Scottish slaveowners in the Transatlantic trade. To learn more about what we can do to become more aware of our perceptions of race and privilege, I would recommend So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, and Why I’m No Longer Talking (to White People) About Race by Reni Eddo-Ledge.I would also recommend How to Be an Antiracist by Dr Ibram X Kendi. His library also includes works on how to approach the subject with children in his series How to Raise and Antiracist. For the intersectional, feminist perspective I would also recommend Hood Feminism: notes from the women that a movement forgot by Mikki Kendall.

1 thought on “Juneteenth: Lessons From Across the Pond”

  1. In my view, we have a responsibility to help those less fortunate than ourselves for the simple reason that we are more fortunate…nothing more. That extends across society and also internationally. Our moral obligation to help those less fortunate is not due to some guilt that we are all required to share due to a tiny minority of rich people exploiting slavery to make themselves richer several generations ago, but due to our basic humanity.

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