Michael Suguitan / Sun Staff Photographer

Students discuss the recognition of Juneteenth by the University as a starting point towards longer terms actions within the community and nationally to support equity.

June 25, 2020

Juneteenth Weekend Commemorated by Cornell Students With Celebration and Reflection

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Black pride, Black Lives Matter protests and celebratory barbeques accompanied by $6.19 sales kicked off Juneteenth – a commemoration of the ending of slavery. Throughout the nation, members of the Cornell community celebrated the day, supporting the Black community and appreciating Black culture.

Juneteenth, which has received renewed attention in recent weeks, marks the day when Union forces arrived in Galveston, Texas — delivering the news that enslaved people were free two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lassan Bagayoko ’22, co-chair of Black Students United, celebrated Juneteenth as he has since he was five, this time, however, under COVID-19 restrictions.

Although Bagayoko recognized the holiday as he does every year, this year’s celebrations looked different  — the community could not get a permit to block 116th and Lenox Avenue, where Bagayoko usually celebrates, and he wore a mask and gloves at the three cookouts he attended.

Amid a wave of nationwide protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Bagayoko also saw parades and protests march along Harlem’s streets.

“One thing that Juneteenth always is, is a time for us to reflect and celebrate. The Black Lives Matter protests, while they have kicked up now, this is not a new issue,” Bagayoko said. He wanted to make sure his celebration was not just focused on recognizing the oppression Black people face in society on a daily basis, but also a time centered on fun, celebration and embracing Black culture.

Alexandra Gibbons ’22 celebrated the day in Ithaca, attending the “Decriminalize, Demilitarize and Decarcerate” rally during the day, and cooking a traditional Juneteenth meal with her family for dinner.

“Everyone in my family loves to cook, so it was meaningful to us to celebrate Black culture through food,” she told The Sun. For Gibbons and her family, this meal consisted of soul food, including biscuits, grits, black-eyed peas, barbecue chicken, greens and red velvet cake.

Although Gibbons was previously aware of Juneteenth, this year marked her first time actually celebrating it.

“I regret this now, but my family plans on celebrating Juneteenth every year going forward,” she said. “We haven’t had enough of these hard conversations in the past but we are dedicated to changing that moving forward.”

For Nnaemeka Nwankpa ’22, co-chair of Black Students United, his first time hearing of Juneteenth was two years ago. This Juneteenth, Nwankpa joined a Black Lives Matter parade in his hometown of Chicago and enjoyed a small barbecue, while respecting social distancing restrictions.

“It was a beautiful sight to see, people celebrating our Blackness and celebrating our freedom. But, it also kind of made me aware that this country isn’t completely free,” he told The Sun. “This country is still in a space where we haven’t experienced equality, so it did make me more aware of that.”

For both Nwankpa and Bagayoko, this year’s Juneteenth celebration included more conversations about the true history and meaning behind the holiday, as well as pointing out the lack of attention Juneteenth had received in previous years.

Juneteenth should be celebrated and recognized regardless of political views, as it is a “part of the history of our country,” Nwankpa said.

“In order for this day to be recognized as a national holiday, we need it on our calendar. That’s the biggest change that I want to see in the foreseeable future,” Nwankpa said. “It’s not enough for a few people to recognize it, it’s only going to have an impact if everyone recognizes it.”

Both co-chairs agreed that a crucial facet in the recognition of Juneteenth from this point forward will stem from the education system, in order to teach people, including allies of the Black community, what it really represents and why it should be celebrated.

Bagayoko highlighted several actions allies of Black people could take as a starting point towards reaching equity.

“First and foremost, this should be a celebratory day, people should be happy, it should be a day where our allies should be able to feel like they can celebrate this day with us as well,” he said.

He encouraged non-Black people to support their Black friends, co-workers and other associates through communication and providing support to Black businesses and nonprofit organizations.

“If we use Juneteenth as a checkpoint in time, more so for allies, to say ‘Hey, are they actually being treated as equal in society?’ that will also allow for us to make a lot of progressive initiatives and support to eventually be able to reach toward achieving equality,” Bagayoko said.

“They need to actively demonstrate their ally ship, and also continue to educate themselves,” Nwankpa said.

According to Gibbons, her family talked about changes they wanted to make as a white family celebrating Juneteenth for the first time.

“We talked about supporting Black businesses more, making regular donations to groups who fight against racism and about having more conversations about white privilege,” she told The Sun.

Bagayoko highlighted the importance of recognizing that all marginalized communities within the Black community matter, especially women.

“There are certain groups that are even further stratified within our black communities that need more recognition, need more attention, need more consolidation for the experiences that they have been forced to undergo as a result of the hands in people in our government and in our society,” Nwankpa said.

While Nwankpa acknowledged that the current Black Lives Matter movement has played a role in sparking awareness of the celebration, his “biggest fear and biggest ask as we continue to move forward is that this cannot end, because our mistreatment has not ended.”

“Juneteenth needs to become a culture,” he said.

According to Bagayoko, as a top-tier institution, the University itself is not doing enough either.

“Cornell needs to make sure that students are educated about what Juneteenth means, even if we’re not on campus. That can be something as simple as Martha Pollack sending out a statement that recognizes it as a day is the least we can ask for at this point,” Bagayoko told the Sun.

But a statement, he said, would only be a starting point, because it ultimately “doesn’t make any Black student on campus feel supported.” Instead, he said that the University should explain the day’s importance, encourage celebration, and say “this is how we’re going to support you guys in this community.”

“People need to take the time out and educate themselves on African American history and culture, and not only say, ‘we’re listening’ but say ‘we’re listening and this is how we’re going to support you,’” Bagayoko said. “Because now it’s makeup time, it’s time to make reparations.”

Correction, June 26, 1:32 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated an address mentioned by Lassan Bagayoko. The article has since been updated.