A moment of reflection as we celebrate Juneteenth
By Tyler TerMeer, PhD, CEO of San Francisco AIDS Foundation
In the four months that I have been here in the Bay Area, I’ve been thinking a lot about the significance of this moment in time for our organization’s history.
What a truly powerful moment we are in that for the first time in the 40-year history of San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF) we will recognize the Juneteenth Holiday with a Black person at the helm and having just had an incredibly powerful Juneteenth event for those we serve—organized by our phenomenal Black Health Team here at the Foundation!
I know first-hand that for so many Black and Brown folx in our community and in this work—we never thought that this day would come. As Black people we haven’t always felt welcome, had a seat at the table, or seen those that look like us in positions of leadership. These among factors have made services historically feel inaccessible or out of reach.
But in this new moment of our history at SFAF, I have the tremendous honor to fill this role and to be here in this moment of Juneteenth celebration with you all.
Growing up I wasn’t familiar with Juneteenth because it wasn’t taught about in my school or even recognized or celebrated in the community in which I lived. I grew up in a predominately white city, in a part of town in which my grandparents fought hard to be able to purchase land and set their children, grandchildren and future generations of our family up for the best possible success.
I was, however, familiar with Juneteenth because I have had the privilege of growing up in a Black household who strongly believed in the power of storytelling and the importance of lifting up the lived experiences of our ancestors—no matter how painful that history may.
And while it is impossible to have any legitimate discussion of the HIV epidemic in America—or any other health or socio-economic disparity for that matter—without discussing race, we can’t ignore the fact that the discussion needs to go far beyond that as well. Conditions such as poverty, education and economic injustice, racial and gender bias, gender-based violence, mass incarceration, and the resulting impact of trauma are all conditions that have been intentionally ingrained in our society and help create an environment for the HIV epidemic to thrive.
The legacy of slavery, violence against and systemic oppression of Black people hangs heavy over the U.S. and has always permeated our sociopolitical climate.
As Black people we have always had to fight, and we are STILL fighting today!
Over the past several years, we have had to stand strong and fight back against the efforts of the previous administration and Congress to suppress Black activism defend and give cover to violent white supremacists, disparage African countries, and relentlessly attack the health care safety net upon which Black people living with and vulnerable to HIV rely.
Now, as Black people we don’t need anyone to tell us that the fight for equity and onwards to liberation is far from over.
So, to honor my ancestors today, I am going to ground us with a story. This story should be as common of knowledge among us as the route knowledge we have of the Independence Day Celebration we create space for here in the U.S. every year—but for many complicated, layered, and racist reasons—it is not as widely known.
On June 19, two days after his arrival and nearly 170 years ago this week, Major General Gordon Granger steamed into the port of Galveston, Tex. With 1,800 Union soldiers where he stood on the balcony of a building in downtown Galveston and read General Order No. 3 to the assembled crowd below. “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
The jubilation following Granger’s announcement in Galveston moved across Texas, quickly reaching the state’s 250,000 enslaved people. A year later, a spontaneous holiday called Juneteenth—formed from the words June and nineteenth.
Still, approximately 170 years after its birth, Juneteenth remains largely unacknowledged on America’s national calendar. Many Americans have been unaware of its existence until recent years, or its roots. Sadly, that ignorance of Juneteenth reflects a deeper issue: the continued existence of two histories, black and white, separate, and unequal.
Frederick Douglass voiced that fundamental divide in a memorable speech on July 4, 1852. “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me,” he said. “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.”
Juneteenth is the flip side of the Independence Day coin. One hundred and seventy years after General Granger told the enslaved people of Texas they were free, Juneteenth is viewed by many of those who are aware of it as an “African-American holiday.”
That perception, however, unfairly diminishes the fundamental significance of Juneteenth. The day should be recognized for what it is: a shared point of pride in the symbolic end of centuries of racial slavery—a crime against humanity and the great stain on America’s soul. As meaningful as Independence Day itself, Juneteenth completes the circle, reaffirming “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as the rights of all, not a select few.
So, this coming weekend as SFAF recognizes this day and as we continue our work it’s a stark reminder to pause and remember the important commitment we have made to racial and health justice for all as a framework—not just in passing conversation or the focus of one piece of our work, but in our day-to-day practice.
Juneteenth is a day of celebration. It is also an opportunity to begin to articulate a collective vision for addressing HIV and drug user health in our communities—one that is grounded in racial and social justice; and builds on the inherent strengths and resilience in our communities.
It is an opportunity to uplift Black leaders and highlight the innovative programming of our Black Health Team and the creative and engaging work so many other programs here at SFAF are creating for Black people—programming that is community-born and driven. It serves as a reminder that there should be nothing about us, without us.
As CEO, I remain dedicated to leading with race, to listening, learning, and growing together, and to make the continued investments that lift up our commitment to equity and racial justice.
In fact, I personally believe that growth and strength only come through continuous effort and learning to sit and work through that discomfort in our own time and way. The requires us to own the missteps of our past, validate the experiences folx may have had with us over time, and commit to doing better. This is emotional, difficult, but critically important work.
It will take all of us to turn this tide. But Liberation is possible!