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The Meaning of Juneteenth for Higher Ed

The Meaning of Juneteenth for Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed

Thomas A. Parham
July 5, 2022
In his poem “Dreams,” the great American poet Langston Hughes reminds us that we should “Hold fast to dreams/For if dreams die/Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly.”
Beyond providing academic and co-curricular spaces for students to cultivate their intellectual potential, as a psychologist and university president, I also believe our role in higher education is to prevent wings from breaking and mend those that do.
Earlier this summer, the California State University system and the CSU Dominguez Hills campus that I lead hosted their first Juneteenth biennial symposium and celebration of Black excellence. The symposium drew some 650 in-person attendees and more than 1,200 participants via live-streaming, who took advantage of an opportunity to engage in some deep thinking and analysis about several questions:
  • What does the celebration of Juneteenth really mean?
  • How do we elevate the voices of our ancestors and everyday people in this discourse on higher education?
  • And, given the state of Black students, staff, faculty and senior administrators in higher education, how do we prevent wings from breaking and mend those whose structural integrity has been compromised by the inattention and outright bias and neglect of resources that would otherwise contribute to more successful outcomes than each of those groups currently realize?
The symposium was an opportunity to interrogate the most fundamental questions related to people’s recognition of this newly declared national holiday. Juneteenth, Jubilee Day or Freedom Day, as it is sometimes called, is a recognition of the delayed emancipation of Black people in the Confederate state of Texas from bondage and slavery, even as they were granted their illusory freedom some two years earlier in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Had it not been for General Gordon Granger and the Union Army’s movement into Galveston, Tex., and the announcement on June 19, 1865, Black folks in Texas may have waited even longer to be freed.
During the symposium and my opening remarks, I queried if some in attendance questioned my use of the term “illusory freedom.” After all, many believe that Black people were really freed from slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation, and that the oppressors and their descendants have no obligation to address the residual baggage left by more than 400 years of oppression, discrimination, degradation, degeneracy, debasement, dishonor and dehumanization that slavery represents.
Well, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, and various amendments added to the Constitution, and yet we continue to see a precipitous gap between Black and white in almost every objective index we measure, including employmenthousingwealth accumulationhealth statusvoting rightstreatment by law enforcement and criminal justice officialseducational accessretention, persistencegraduation and thriving of studentshiring, promotion and tenure of Black faculty; lack of opportunity for advancement to senior executive positions; etc. So alongside the so-called Freedom Day we now pledge to celebrate by CSU trustee mandate, I questioned what the CSU system and its 23 campuses were prepared to do to move beyond yearly programming and celebration. How can we usher in a new era of freedom for people of African descent in terms of enrollment, retention, graduation, recruitment and hiring of staff and faculty, promotion and tenure, and support for senior university executives?
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