Human revolution is a revolution in our actions and behavior. Human revolution means to purposefully engage in behavior that is grounded in compassion, in actions that break free from the cycle of the six paths and bring us to the worlds of Bodhisattva and Buddhahood. – Daisaku Ikeda
One of the core tenets of Buddhism is that our practice can emancipate us from delusion and guide us toward acting wisely and bravely to positively transform ourselves and our world. Indeed, the actualization of our enlightenment lies in this effort, this human revolution.
The history and residuals of the enslavement of African heritage people throughout the Americas and globally have left us with a legacy of delusions: delusions about our interdependence; delusions of white supremacy (which we have all internalized); delusions about the value of Black lives; and delusions about our own power to emancipate ourselves and our world from these delusions.
In my Juneteenth talk on Dharma & Emancipation, I offer practices you can engage with before, during, and after Juneteenth to release the delusions of white supremacy that linger in your mind and life. I invite you to consider how Black liberation relates to your personal sense of freedom.
In this article, I offer a framework to launch your exploration in hopes that it helps you to use the celebration of Juneteenth as an opportunity to advance your own emancipation, specifically attending to how it is inextricably bound with the emancipation of Black people.
First, let me say what Juneteenth really is. It is a celebration launched by Black Americans to acknowledge our liberation and the culmination of our ancestors’ (and their allies’) centuries-long determination that we would not live in bondage forever.
Black people ended the enslavement of Black people. They did so through countless acts of daily resistance, from putting herbs in enslavers’ food to make them too tired to rape or beat us, to the millions of heroic escape efforts we will never know of. One of the delusions of white supremacy is that white people ended slavery: that Abraham Lincoln was swayed by white abolitionists and together they freed the helpless Black people. This is absurd, because abolitionists themselves were guided and inspired by the works of Black people to end slavery: from Nat Turner’s resistance, we see the root of John Brown’s rebellion. Frederick Douglass’s eloquent rage moved and continues to move countless minds and hearts beyond the delusion that Black subjugation is anything other than brutal cowardice. Sojourner Truth led the way for all women to see their power and preceded the suffragist movement in America—even though Black women did not have the right to vote or any other rights until almost half a century after white women won that right. For context, my mother and grandmother never had these rights until the year of my birth—1965—and even then, trying to exercise their rights was often life-threatening because of white supremacist terrorism in the form of the Klan and violent police and government interference.
I invite you to notice that Black leaders who resisted and ended enslavement are as much your personal liberators, whether or not you are Black, as they are liberators of their Black descendants. As Time reporter Janell Ross, herself a descendant of a child freed on Juneteenth, points out:
If you ask Black people born and raised on the island, Juneteenth marks the day Black soldiers in blue uniforms came with their guns to Galveston. That is the story they have told for generations, about the moment some of their ancestors knew freedom had finally arrived in Texas, the westernmost Confederate breakaway state. That’s the truth as it’s widely understood by Black people in Galveston, even if the common story of that day often focuses on a single white man: General Gordon Granger, who led Union troops to the harbor there on June 17, 1865. Two days later, records in the National Archives tell us, he issued what’s known as General Order No. 3.
Granger had no evident commitment to Black people being liberated from slavery himself, and there is no record of his ever having spoken of his role in the emancipation of the 250,000 people who were still enslaved in Texas. However, we do know that approximately 200,000 Black men worked to end slavery as soldiers in the Union Army despite deplorable treatment. This effort is but one of the many ways Black people emancipated the nation from the psychopathy of chattel slavery.
Let’s try a practice together. I invite you to close your eyes for a moment and cast your mind to envision what the world would look like now if Black people had not resisted and ceaselessly worked to end slavery.
What would your mind perceive as you walk past auction blocks and whipping posts? How would you explain your acceptance of these circumstances to yourself? To your children?
What would it make you feel?
How would you act on what you thought and felt?
What can you notice in your life and community that reflects the modern-day oppression of Black people?
What are you called to do about the oppression of Black people that you notice?
Whatever envisioning the present-day oppression of Black people moves you to feel and do now is an indication of what you might have felt and done in the historical past. Rather than wallowing in apathy, shame, or guilt, you can use your practice to consider what you can do now to move out of delusions of powerlessness and create a more just, enlightened world. When you hear of murderous policing of Black people and learn that capture and subjugation of Black people via “slave patrols” is precisely the origin of modern-day policing; when you notice that Black people are disproportionately imprisoned and on death row; or that Black children are regularly attacked, beaten, or even shot by white people of all ages, what does your most enlightened mind prompt you to do?
Reflecting on these facts of our contemporary existence allows you to consider the quality of your own emancipation from delusions of impotence or separation from these realities. Black people have been saying for centuries that white supremacists’ violence is our greatest domestic threat. Indeed, even institutions that have been complicit with white supremacy such as the FBI (which, for example, extensively targeted Dr. Martin Luther King) and the Department of Homeland Security (which has issued statements acknowledging its racism) have long recognized this. However, even after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, many still believe that white supremacy threatens only Black people. This reflects a fundamental delusion about our interdependence—a delusion we can free ourselves from through our practice.
By considering our privilege, we gain the self-awareness and capacity to use that privilege to improve our inner life and the world around us. Juneteenth provides an opportunity for Black people, for Native Americans, for immigrants from all regions of the world, and, of course, for white racialized people to consider:
How am I personally privileged by residuals of enslavement that codified white supremacy?
Am I benefiting from white or light skin, which was valued more by enslavers?
Am I benefiting from economic privilege built on the tortuous enslavement of Black people?
Am I benefiting from a sense of being safe from attack by those who devalue Black life?
How do I benefit from historical and contemporary Black resistance?
Black resistance, of course, created a paradigm for the women’s movement, LGBTQ movement, disability rights movement, immigrant rights, and countless other human and civil rights movements domestically and internationally. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 outlawed racial quotas in the United States immigration system, and that was inspired by the African American civil rights movement. Contemplating our relationship to Black liberation is a practical way to deepen our sense of connection and freedom.
Consider these queries to further your contemplation.
What Black resistance leaders am I actively learning from and supporting toward our collective liberation?
What aspects of my interdependence are alive in allyship that is enacted—and not just thought about?
What are my next steps in this?
Contemplating these questions allows you to practice with Juneteenth to emancipate yourself and honor the Black people who have previously—and continue to—emancipate you and the world around you.
When my mother, Lailah Majied, introduced me to Buddhism, she clarified for me that enlightenment—the purpose of Buddhist practice—meant manifesting my inner resolve for freedom, wisdom, and the courage to nurture those qualities in everyone and everything around me. Her prayer was that I would do my human revolution and overcome fear, grief, and delusion to ceaselessly emancipate myself and others. On Juneteenth, I offer you her benediction, which in fact reflects the benediction from all of our Black ancestors. May you be free. May you awaken to and act on your resolve to see all beings be free.
Watch a conversation with Dr. Kamilah Majied on “Dharma & Emancipation: Reflections on Juneteenth” here.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.