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On Self-Expression, Honoring Juneteenth & Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys is something of a role model for me

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed The Emancipation Proclamation meant to free America’s enslaved. But in a still divided America, everyone thought it wouldn’t immediately happen. Confederate plantation owners in the south, addicted to their massive profits from the slave-based economy, ignored Lincoln. Relying on domination, exploitation, and humiliation of colored people, it would take two years before slaves in Galveston, Texas knew they’d been freed.

Ridiculous.

Why did it take so long? Because the Civil War dealt first with uniting the northern and southern halves of white America: slavery was a distant second. Can you imagine the internal tension those in Galveston  must have experienced before June 19th, 1865, when they finally found out?

If I was a slave in that time, what would I feel? I imagine rumors of freedom elsewhere going around. Will I be freed as well?  In reality, days pass, weeks pass, months pass without knowing.

Instead of getting the accurate information those slaves rode waves of uncertainty. It wasn’t simply a jump from 1863 to 1865 and just like that: you’re free. It was probably months of “Hey…someone up there is (or isn’t) working on this,” gossip. On the positive side, I picture the hope under those circumstances. But on the negative side, I envision the sad things that happened under that anticipation of “maybe I’ll be free”.

I only found out about Juneteenth in an article when I was 20 years old (I’m 24 now).

Personally, with my coddled American mind, I would have gone crazy. This is why I celebrate that liberating day, that first Juneteenth. Slaves persevered against the exploitation up until the day they knew they were free. A moment of silence, though, for those who were never freed. (Suicide was common among slaves.)

The Control of Appearance

Unfortunately, before slavery was abolished, owners were bent on manipulating female slaves’ appearances to control them psychologically and socially.  From 19th century plantation records, diaries, letters, drawings, paintings, and photos of female slaves, Eulanda Sanders of Colorado State University’s Department of Design and Merchandising shows us main themes of that control: Deprivation, Domination and Commodification.

Sanders found that enslaved women were deprived of protective clothing such as bonnets, shawls, and shoes no matter the weather. Deprivation was paired with other acts of domination such as the aggressive cutting of slave women’s hair and dressing them up comically to control how they were seen; for example, if perverted owners believed a Black woman’s “hypersexuality” was why she was so irresistible, her hair would be ruined, and she would be humiliated.

From auctioning to public advertisements, slaves were “placed in the position of being viewed as property,” says Sanders. “Subscribers” (slave owners) targeted female’s hair length and skin color as selling points, objectifying them during the slave trade

Gone are the days where we are forced to be something we aren’t. Many of us people of color have more choice when it comes to fitting in wherever we choose. This is why when we celebrate Juneteenth for the 2nd time as a federal holiday (signed into law by President Joe Biden June 17, 2021) we recognize it as a day of remembering, of freedom, a day to be our unique selves.

Being Authentically Yourself is One Way to Honor Juneteenth

Now, if we want to celebrate that big thing, one small thing we can do is have the courage to express ourselves fully and with authenticity. I personally look at Alicia Keys as my role model in this way.

In a world where we’re always connected to what other people do, what they look like or what they want to be, channeling authenticity “is something we are challenged with our whole lives,” says Alicia Keys. She’s a biracial woman who, in front of all these people, with all these expectations, and all these Euro-centric standards, commits to being her authentic self.

Since coming into your authentic self can be hard let’s listen to Alicia tell us how she’s handling her coming-of-self while she’s facing the public every day. Maybe her realizations will inspire you to fearlessly express your individual authenticity.  

In her book, “More Myself”, we hear about Alicia’s music producers who only prioritized commercial success. They wanted her hair straighter, her body thinner, her teeth whiter, her hemlines shorter… you name it –whatever entertained. Her producers wanted to adjust her to society’s idea of who she should be. Mmmm, how kind of them to adopt the dated mindset of slave owners.

“We adjust ourselves not in sweeping pivots, but in movements so tiny that they are hardly perceptible, even in our view. Years can pass before we finally discover that, after handing over our power piece by small piece, we no longer even look like ourselves.”

Alicia Keys

We’ll always meet challenges while seeking our authentic self even in 2022. Juneteenth is a day to pause and recognize that it’s okay to fight to be ourselves with the freedom we now have.

“I think the most important thing is that you do what feels good for you. It’s really not about anything else. You do what feels good for you as opposed to what we think people wanna see us like…Just be who you are…all of us should just be honest to ourselves…have a great time…and do what makes you feel good as opposed to trying to please every-damn-body!” – Alicia, USA Today, 2016.

Alicia realized some things I think I realized, which is the pointlessness of perfection for other people. Why fear what they might think? I’m fed up with that mindset and feel better being myself. How about you? Sometimes we unconsciously try pleasing people who probably don’t care about us at all. Look, we cannot be wasting our short Earth time like that the louder freedom rings.

Sustainability and Authenticity

I think unlocking your authenticity helps support sustainability. Sustainability calls for us to consume less. Now that we as Black women have to perform less and less, we need not overconsume things just because the ad-masters dictates. We can choose how we function in society through free discovery of things that serve the purposes we need. It slows our consumption down because we can choose to buy something we will value more.  Like our ancestors after the legal end of slavery, we can celebrate our emancipation by exercising control over our own lives.

“The truest pleasure is the fact that we can breathe”

– Alicia Keys, Girl Can’t Be Herself, 2016

So, celebrate Juneteenth! Be free. Be authentic. And try do it with joy.  But if you struggle, hopefully this article helps every time you come back to read it.

–Destiny Washington


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