By Sam Bojarski
African-Americans have celebrated Juneteenth ‒ their Independence Day ‒ for 155 years. As millions throughout the country challenge systemic racism, many have realized that the struggle for black liberation is far from over.
“To me, Juneteenth is a day of freedom, that celebrates freedom, and I had to be here,” said Myriam Sterlin, a Haitian physician who attended the Juneteenth Cel-Liberation Rally, held on the morning of June 19. Sterlin, of New Jersey, said her work schedule had previously prevented her from attending any local events or protests, held in response to the death of George Floyd in May.
Haitian-American District 45 Councilwoman Farah Louis partnered with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, fellow Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo and multiple community organizations to present the Cel-Liberation Rally event. Haitian American Caucus and Haiti Cultural Exchange were among the sponsors. The event, held on the steps of the Brooklyn Public Library, featured music and dancing, while youth from the community shared their perspectives on racial justice and police brutality.
Juneteenth celebrates the end of chattel slavery in the United States. The holiday this year comes weeks after the police killing of George Floyd, as protesters throughout the country challenge the systemic racism that has continued since the end of slavery.
Yashiyah Vines, 19, was one of the youth who addressed the large crowd gathered at the foot of the library’s steps. Vines has been an activist since his cousin, Delrawn “Smalls” Dempsey, a black man, was shot and killed by an off-duty NYPD officer in 2016. Earlier this month, he helped organize a protest in response to the death of George Floyd.
“We saw how strongly people felt about the murders and the injustices toward black men and women and children in this country. So we decided we’re going to be the last generation. No more names, we don’t want any more names,” Vines said.
Performers for the morning included the Brooklyn United Marching Band, Blue Diamonds Drumline and the rapper Papoose. Singer Asia Williams and spoken word artist Hanifah Johnson also shared the microphone with elected officials and community leaders ‒ including District 42 Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte and Farah Louis. Haitian-American District Leader Josue Pierre served as master of ceremonies.
Samuel Darguin, a co-founder of the Haitian American Caucus, was one of the last speakers to take the microphone. He encouraged voters to participate in the June 23 primary election, as well as the general election in November.
“What we saw on that pavement in Minneapolis was our brothers, our sons, our grandsons, our nephews on that pavement, being drowned and executed at the very, very same time. I can just hear our ancestors telling us, ‘keep on going,’” Darguin said, at the beginning of his address.
“It’s going to be a long struggle, and I hope that this does not stop here. The unfortunate death of Mr. Floyd was a (catalyst) to this, and I hope that this is the beginning of a nonstop fight that we lead daily to freedom,” Sterlin said.
The Haitian-American physician, who was born in Haiti and got her education there before relocating to the U.S. about 25 years ago, said she had never encountered racism before arriving in the States. She also highlighted the important role Haiti has played in American history.
In 1804, Haiti became the first black republic in the world, after defeating the French in the Haitian Revolution and officially ending slavery in the former colony. Haiti stood as a symbol of freedom to blacks throughout the hemisphere, during the first half of the 19th century and beyond. During the 1820s, for example, thousands of freed African-Americans migrated to Haiti, at the invitation of Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer.
As Myriam Sterlin’s son, Vladimir Sterlin, stood beside her at the June 19 rally, he told the Haitian Times that he became aware of America’s racial divisions much earlier in life.
“I believe second-generation Haitian Americans have an audacious attitude. Whereas we come from a home where we’ve always had a Haitian or a black president,” said Vladimir, who works as a special assistant to Assembly Member Bichotte.
But after getting out into the real world, “you see how they try to pump the brakes. Like, ‘oh wait wait wait, hold your role, know your place,’” Vladimir added.
This year, calls have grown throughout the country to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Multiple states have already made June 19 a paid holiday for employees. Starting in 2021, Juneteenth will become an official holiday in New York City. America, however, has never undergone a national truth and reconciliation process to address its history of racial injustice like other nations, including Germany, South Africa and Rwanda.
Vladimir Sterlin voiced his support for making Juneteenth a national holiday.
“It’s long overdue. Ethnic groups that came here long after the slave ships arrived from Africa all have their own holidays,” he said.