Black Americans living abroad reflect on the June 16 holiday
With the United States only observing the second federally recognized June 16, black Americans living abroad have used the holiday as a day of reflection and an opportunity to educate people in their host countries about black history.
President Joe Biden moved quickly last year to nationally recognize the day black Americans celebrate since the last enslaved people were told they were free on June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas, two years after the president’s Emancipation Proclamation Abraham Lincoln of 1863.
In Liberia, Saqar Ahhah Ahershu, 45, of Jersey City, NJ, is organizing the country’s first Journey Home Festival. “Because this is part of this hidden African-American history that still hasn’t been fully unpacked,” he said in Monrovia.
Liberia, Africa’s oldest independent republic, was founded in 1822, exactly 200 years ago, by freed slaves repatriated to West Africa from the United States. This weekend’s event includes a trip to Providence Island, where former slaves settled before moving to what is now Monrovia on the mainland.
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Although there are no official statistics tracking black Americans moving abroad, many are more openly discussing it in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. As a result, many African Americans saw the US “outside in” and chose not to return.
Tashina Ferguson, a 26-year-old debating coach, was living in New York at the time of Eric Garner’s death.
She moved to South Korea in 2019 and will celebrate with a group of drag performers at a fundraising brunch for the Marsha P. Johnson Institute on Sunday, June 16. She looks forward to the latest federal holiday with mixed feelings.
“Juneteenth’s commercialism has become a whole, put it on a t-shirt, put it on sundae,” she said. “But as a black person within the black community, I’m like, yes, let’s celebrate.” She said only major change would make her return to the United States
Chrishan Wright in New Jersey regularly speaks to black Americans who are planning or have already made the move abroad. Wright, 47, hosts a Blaxit Global podcast and said many of her guests are fed up with the US
“They have done everything they can to achieve what the American Dream is meant to be, and that benchmark is constantly shifting. They don’t feel like they’re on solid ground when it comes to retiring comfortably, paying off student debt, or just paying their bills.” Wright plans to move to Portugal in 2023. Through her podcast, she already knows about the June 16 celebrations this weekend in the capital, Lisbon.
In some locations with larger populations of Black Americans, Juneteenth is already part of the program.
LaTonya Whitaker from Mississippi has lived in Japan for 17 years. She is executive director of Legacy Foundation Japan, which hosted a June 16 gathering for about 300 people at the posh Tokyo American Club on Saturday.
She and her husband David had no intention of living in Japan.
Like Whitaker, many black Americans at the June 16 event came to Japan almost by accident as Christian missionaries or Peace Corps volunteers. But they have made Japan their home. She now wants to raise her son there because she is concerned about gun violence in the United States. “I realized that we really need a community,” Whitaker said.
Michael Williams teaches African American history at Temple University in Tokyo and left the US at 22. He is now 66 and has lived abroad for much of his adult life but returned to the US for graduate school in Boston and Baltimore.
America has changed so much, he feels like a tourist when he visits, he laughed. Williams said he knew Juneteenth from history class. “I would always end my presentations with the hope that one day this would be a national holiday. And that’s how it is now and it feels great,” he said.
In Taipei, Toi Windham and Casey Abbott Payne are hosting several events to celebrate June 16th. The two, part of Black Lives Matter Taiwan, host performances by black artists and musicians. Both celebrated with their families long before the national holiday.
Windham has lived in Taiwan for five years and always celebrated June 16 growing up in Texas. For her, it’s an opportunity to educate people about a different part of American culture, even the darker parts.
“A lot of people tend to enjoy hip-hop culture and the clothes and certain parts of our culture, but I think it’s important to acknowledge all parts of black culture,” she said. Payne, an organizer, has lived in Taiwan for 11 years and said he also celebrated June 16 growing up in Milwaukee, which has one of the oldest festivals in the country.
“As a kid, I remember the street being lined with street vendors, music playing, and the June 16 parade parading through it,” he said. For others, the day is a chance to happily sit back and rest.
In Bangkok, a group called Ebony Expats organized a silent film screening, a bike ride in a nature reserve, and a dinner at a Jamaican restaurant that served jerk chicken and pumpkin soup. Restaurant owner Collin Clifford McKoy served 20 years in the US Army before eventually opening his restaurant in Thailand during the pandemic. He said the June 16 holiday is a chance for black people to share their culture while being so far from home, American or not.
“Overall it’s about coming together no matter where we are and it shows how much blood flows deep as a community to come together and have fun,” he said.