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Black BYUH students open up about their pain and joy and what Juneteenth means to them

portrait of Black female student with red braided hair and a black shirt standing in front of the trunks of a tree in the BYUH art courtyard
Chenoa Francis smiles for a picture days before Juneteenth is observed as a federal and BYUH holiday.

Junior Chenoa Francis said she felt “genuinely seen” when President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency called Black lives matter an “eternal truth” that should be universally accepted. Oaks made the statement on Oct. 27, 2020, at a devotional at BYU in Provo. The following year, in 2021, the celebration of the emancipation, or freedom, of slaves in the United States, a day known as “Juneteenth,” became a federal holiday, which Francis added also helped her to feel seen.

“To me [Juneteenth] means a recognition of what I would consider one of the biggest sins of the world. It’s also a celebration of my people’s independence in the United States,” said Francis, who is from New York and studying creative writing at BYU–Hawaii. BYUH has included Juneteeth as one of its holidays giving people off this year Monday, June 20.

Francis’ sister, Sarah Francis, a junior studying social work from Connecticut, said although Juneteenth is a celebration of their freedom, that slavery did not stop with the Thirteenth Amendment. The Thirteenth Amendment was the addition to the U.S. Constitution passed by Congress in 1865 that officially did away with slavery, according to the National Archives website.

Sarah Francis said she believes there is still slavery within the U.S. incarceration systems. She added Juneteenth isn’t just a Black holiday because if anybody’s rights are denied, then everybody’s rights have the potential to be taken away at any time. “If you are someone who is not Black and are trying to figure out how to pay homage to this day, I’d watch the Thirteenth Amendment [“13TH”] on Netflix,” she recommended.

David Beus, an associate professor in the Faculty of Culture, Language & Performing Arts, said Emancipation Day, the original name for Juneteenth, began in Galveston, Texas, after the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared the freedom of all slaves in the United States. “I don’t know when it started to popularly be called Juneteenth,” said Beus. “It was just on June 19, and over time, just like Independence Day is called the Fourth of July, the date becomes the name.”

George Floyd, riots and anti-racism 

The death of George Floyd that sparked the 2020 protests felt like a universal pain among Black people, said Chenoa Francis. “It’s like a tear tickling at the back of your eyes,” she explained. “If I did not believe in the gospel, I would just lose hope in all mankind because I don’t even have the words to enunciate how evil that was. But then again it’s just a routine because it happens again and again.”

As America confronted its systemic racism in the form of mass protests, Beus said he felt the university needed to address the issue, and so he began teaching a humanities 100R anti-racism class, which he said has been met with a lot of interest and some opposition. Beus said his dissertation work looked at the ways African stereotypes developed in the European imagination during the Atlantic Slave Trade. Since then, he said he has studied racism in the French Army, how Black American veterans were treated after World War I and mass incarceration.

On Cwic Media, a YouTube channel that discusses issues related to the Church and its members, a man posted a video in May saying he believes BYUH should not be teaching critical race theory in Beus’ anti-racism class. Beus said some people don’t want students learning about race and racism but ignorance limits agency. “The anti-racism class invites students to learn about the history of racism so they can better recognize and root out present-day racism,” he said.

Jackie Morris, a senior from Charlottesville, Virginia, studying social work, said the day of the Charlottesville riot in the summer of 2017 that ended in 19 injuries and one death, she still went to work at her job. “Girl, I was so mad! They weren’t gonna stop me from making my money,” she said.

Morris said the night before the riot she was watching the news with her mom. The blue light of their television showed the people gathering in their town, she described, shouting hateful things and Nazi sayings. Morris said she vividly recalls her mom looking at the screen and saying, “I literally thought we were done with all of this.”

Morris said she was ashamed that she felt afraid. She wanted to be helping, but she said her fear kept her off the streets as tear gas went off. Since then, Morris said she has found other ways of helping such as opening up her home to people seeking shelter from the violence.

Finding hope in the gospel

Chenoa Francis said when racism became too heavy for her, she would turn to the Book of Mormon. “Whenever I was angry or frustrated or sad, I would go to the Book of Mormon,” she said. “It would uplift my burdens, and it really brought me peace of mind.” Her sister, Sarah Francis, added the gospel has given her hope in people that has protected her from becoming spiteful and angry.

Chenoa Francis identified two specific areas within the gospel that have helped her through the pain of racism. “One is that God hears my prayers and he sees my pain, and he sees what’s happening. He’s going to comfort the weak and the meek and the ones that are in sorrow,” she said.

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This church is a church of love and Black people are just as important to it as anyone else.
Chenoa Francis
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The second, Chenoa Francis added, is the law. “He [God] will judge the wicked. Their actions will have consequences in the end. That may not have it in this life, but they will have it in the next life. That may sound vengeful, but it brings me a lot of comfort in knowing that God hears my prayers and knows how much his children have suffered and will do something about it.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Russell M. Nelson met with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) multiple times in the past few years, reports the Church’s Newsroom. In 2018 when they first met, President Nelson said it was to encourage people in America and around the world “to demonstrate greater civility, racial and ethnic harmony and mutual respect.” At that time, NAACP CEO and President Derrick Johnson complimented the Church on its efforts “to bless not only its members, but people throughout the United States and, indeed, the world” through its “humanitarian and welfare services, pioneering work in higher education and promoting the dignity of all people as children of God.”

Three years later they met on June 14, 2021, to announce the Church and the NAACP would work together on academic scholarships and fellowships as well as relief programs for those in underprivileged areas of the United States.

Chenoa Francis said she felt like the statement the Church was making by meeting with the NAACP was, “This church is a church of love and Black people are just as important to it as anyone else.”

Finding answers to the pain

portrait of two Black female students laughing with each other, one wearing a navy blue floral dress and the other a white shirt and jeans in the art courtyard of BYUH
Jackie Morris (left) and Sarah Francis (right) laugh together in the art courtyard.

Chenoa Francis said she doesn’t have a very good answer for how to stay sane amidst the hate aimed at her and Black Americans. With tears on her face, she said, “You just try not to think about it because it’s kind of your reality no matter where you go. But I also try to talk with people who experience the same things, and it makes the burden lighter by knowing you are not alone.” She added the caveat that, although it's heavy, she wouldn’t change being Black for the world. “I’m Jamaican, and I love Jamaican culture. I love our music. I love the way we dance.”

Morris expressed a similar sentiment, as she said, “There is a lot of pain, but we’re gonna laugh. Period. These horrible things are happening but sometimes laughter and dancing are the two medicines we use.” Sarah Francis added being Black has connected her with so many other people.

Black women’s ability to take something awful and turn it into something good is called “magic,” said Morris. According to an online WUSA9 article, #BlackGirlMagic is a popular hashtag that began when a Washington, D.C., native, CaShawan Thompson, took to Twitter to voice her concerns about the way Black women were being portrayed online. “Today the hashtag … celebrates all black women: celebrities and changemakers along with regular everyday women,” says WUSA9.

Celebrating happiness, taking action 

One way to celebrate Juneteenth is by eating red food, said both Chenoa Francis and Morris. The red symbolizes life and death and spirituality, Chenoa Francis explained. The red is a bonding color that shows Black people were not slaves; Black people were people, she said. Morris said she thinks about the red as a representation of the blood of her people that was spilt.

Beus expressed his mixed feelings about the holiday. “It’s great, [and] we should have made it a national holiday long ago. But I would like to see substantive change, too, along with symbolic change.”

Chenoa Francis added the holiday is a first step and good recognition, but people need to keep moving forward with change. Morris said she hopes nobody is afraid to ask questions about the holiday. She said she encourages the questions and added, “I can’t speak for all Black people, but I can tell you about my experience.” Her only frustration is when people don’t put things they learned into action, she said.

Chenoa Francis said, “I feel like anyone in any culture should celebrate [Juneteenth] because you're my friend, we are one people, we are one nation, one government. This is something we can celebrate together because you’re recognizing this pain that has happened, and we want to celebrate our happiness, our growth with you.”

On Tuesday, June 21 there will be a Juneteenth edition of the film forum at 7 p.m. in the Little Theater. They will be showing the movie “Summer of Soul,” which Morris said is one of her favorite films. She encouraged everyone to come and see it.