Last Updated on June 20, 2022 by BVN

S.E. Williams

I started a new Juneteenth tradition for myself this year. Although I have always acknowledged the day and its importance in our history I usually did so with a slight tinge of bitterness over how it reminded me of an ‘insult added to injury’ for the leaders in Texas not to free their slaves. My thoughts were further darkened by the cruel irony that while we can be critical of what Texas did, we must also remember  the Emancipation Proclamation did not free the enslaved –only those in Confederate states. 

“I never want projects to be finished; I have always believed in unfinished work. I got that from Schubert, you know, the ‘Unfinished Symphony.’”

Yoko Ono

According to the 1860 census there were 451,021 enslaved people in states and territories that made up the Union during the Civil War and although slavery was abolished in some of these states and territories, it was not until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865 that chattel slavery was finally abolished in America. 

I thought about this history for a moment as I lit my candle in honor of the ancestors on Sunday and listened to the Kirk Franklin choir sing “Lift Every Voice,” (my new Juneteenth ritual). I was reminded of a line from a poem I’d recently seen about the resilience of Black people and the “joy symphony” created and embraced by us despite the generations of hardships. 

In truth, the idea of a “joy symphony” though symbolic and intangible, has resonance. I thought about the history of “Lift Every Voice’ and how it has passed from generation to generation in states all over this nation. 

My maternal grandmother was born in 1890, the same year James Weldon Johnson penned the poem “Lift Every Voice”  that became the song eventually adopted by the NAACP as the Negro National Anthem. Sometime after the NAACP adopted the song, my grandmother taught it to my mother and her siblings as each became old enough to learn and sing it. Years later, my mother taught me and my siblings in much the same way. Years later I would teach it to my own children, and  just as my mother taught it to me and they would eventually teach and are teaching their children. I am sure most Black families have similar stories about how they learned this song–whether taught in church or by an elder, this is how we learned to sing it.

According to the 1860 census there were 451,021 slaves in states and territories that made up the Union during the Civil War. Although many slaves in these states and territories were set free during the war, it was not until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865 that chattel slavery was finally abolished in America.  (facebook.m.com)

Listening to “Lift Every Voice”  and its solemn reflections,  poetic phrases, hopeful flourishes  and powerfully uplifting melodies, I was once again reminded of the role music has played in sustaining Black people. In the strictest sense, music is the soundtrack of the historic journey of Black America.

Many would argue that our music across generations does not fit the definition of “symphony” which is defined as an extended musical composition that typically contains three to four movements. 

I disagree. I see our sojourn here as an unfinished symphony playing out in many movements–the movement for emancipation, the movement to end Jim Crow, the movement to stop lynchings, the movement for civil rights, the movement for voting rights, the movements for jobs, housing, health care, –for Black people it is one long movement for freedom, justice  and equity in many parts. 

Our symphony began with the drumming rhythms of those who first arrived from the Mother Land to the snippets of African lamentations handed down by the Gullah people of South Carolina from generation, to generation; to soul stirring gospel stylings of Black church choirs, to Ma Rainey and her blues to Coltrane and his jazz, to R&B, to hip hop, neo soul, and beyond, Black music is a perfect analogy for Black life in America–as one unfinished symphony in many parts. 

Kirk Franklin Choir (youtube.com)

It is the authenticity of Black music that inspires, sustains, compels and propels us forward as we navigate through times of challenge, and that fills us with joy during intermittent moments of respite. 

And so as we celebrate Juneteenth this year and every year, it is important that we never lose sight of the struggle. We must continue to create and hear the messages in the music and lift every voice in the struggle, because the story of Black people in America is an unfinished symphony. Let us march on . . .

Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real.