Celebrating Juneteenth is fraught with emotion, but we must look to the future for hope

There is a duality to Juneteenth that July 4 doesn’t have to bear. Help us feel better about celebrating our emancipation by evening the playing field.

Opinion contributor

On the same day George Floyd’s soul was unwillingly laid to rest, America was jolted awake by an imaginary bullhorn blaring Black Lives Matter. As more and more videos from witnesses leaked to the masses, I couldn’t help but think about the first time I saw police officers use excessive force on a man for being black.

In 1991, George Holiday recorded the vicious beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. In a time when iPhones and Androids didn’t exist, a home video camera was seen as a luxury and not something that would ever catch a crime of this magnitude. There are countless other cases of racial profiling, brutality and misconduct that have tainted our ability to live life without a watchful eye.

Knowing these facts, how do you properly celebrate a holiday that was birthed from suffering and inhumanity? Well, you can suppress the past, which has been an oldie but goodie here in America, or you can become an advocate for change.

Duality to Juneteenth that July Fourth doesn’t have to bear

There is no gray area, so why do I feel like the Black community needs consent to be happy on a day where we should also be mourning the many Black lives lost to slavery, racism, police brutality and the prison system? A chance meeting showed the way forward to me. 

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There is a duality to Juneteenth that July Fourth doesn’t have to bear. We celebrate basic necessities like the right to breathe, to walk down the street safely and drive a vehicle without being pulled over for being Black. It’s hard to lose yourself in the Juneteenth holiday when the past constantly whispers in your ear.

To kill the noise and be more accepting of Juneteenth, I found comfort in sharing my opinion through music. Conversations about slavery and racial inequality can be tough for everyday Americans to accept, but what if you deliver that message via a well-written song?

I was fatefully booked to open up for country music superstars Justin Moore and Colbie Caillat for a July Fourth concert in 2018. Thanks to this event, I met Justin’s keyboard player at the time, Kory Caudill. He is a talented composer/pianist from the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, and we both showed a mutual interest in making music together after seeing each other perform. Kory was already in the early stages of creating music and a concert that would focus on racial reconciliation and building a beloved community.

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I couldn’t believe I had met a musician who shared my passion for confronting the racial disparity in America. On the outside, our skin color and musical collaboration were confusing to some, but it’s honestly the ultimate lesson in judging each other on character over color.

That single way of thinking might have saved the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

Reconciliation, Juneteenth and music

How can you truly reconcile and enjoy Juneteenth when you feel like white America doesn’t have the guts to have hard conversations about race? Kory and I face those conversations head-on through a series he created with the Episcopal Church called "Concert for the Human Family."

We perform songs like “Anti" that focus on living in a nonjudgmental society, while autobiographical pieces like "Anthony’s Song" discuss the racially motivated killing of British 18-year-old Anthony Walker in 2005. I repeat, the consistent tone is racial reconciliation while building a beloved community through patience and understanding.

In fact, patience and understanding should be in bold because that’s what the Black community wants the most. We don’t want hand-me-outs; we want ownership of the past and a genuine IOU for the future. Help us feel better about celebrating our emancipation by evening the playing field across the board. Seeing a Black man or woman as the president should be the norm. Seeing a Black man or woman own an NFL team should be the norm. And seeing Black history taught in our schools on a monthly basis should be a prerequisite.

The examples are endless, so please don’t interrupt our Juneteenth with another senseless killing.

Anthony Parker, who goes by the stage name Wordsmith, is a songwriter, performer and philanthropist from Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter: @Wordsmith 

Editor's note: Wordsmith composed an original spoken word piece for USA TODAY Opinion on Juneteenth, which you can enjoy above.