NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 19: People participate in a march in Brooklyn for both Black Lives Matter and to commemorate the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth on June 19, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)

For two and a half years, enslaved Black Americans in Galveston, Texas, were both free and not free. According to the soaring words of the Emancipation Proclamation, as of January 1, 1863, they were “thenceforward, and forever free” with the full endorsement of the U.S. government. But until official word arrived in Galveston on June 19, 1865 along with Union soldiers, the lofty rhetoric handed down from on high proved no match for the local, lived experience of enslaved people. Instead, with no one yet enforcing the executive order, enslavers in Galveston maintained their grip on power and enslaved people toiled, lived, fought, hoped, despaired, and died because that years-long gap between freedom in name and freedom in reality was allowed to exist. 

It’s worth noting that the proclamation itself implicitly acknowledged that freedom on paper and freedom in reality were not the same thing, promising that federal forces wouldn’t get in the way of freed people who took action toward gaining their “actual freedom.” In other words, while President Abraham Lincoln could declare enslaved people in Confederate states to be free, whether Union forces could immediately enforce those words was a separate matter entirely. Thus, as ever, Black folks were on their own in the in between. 

In many ways, what enslaved Black people in Galveston were left to endure despite the stated policy change is emblematic of Black life in America—the yawning chasm between the highest ideals of what’s officially professed in law or political promises, and our earthbound day-to-day with all its injustices.  

While Juneteenth celebrates the closing of the gap between the Emancipation Proclamation and when all enslaved Black people in America were actually freed, entire generations of Black people have lived and died in similar gulfs across different eras. There was the nadir of race relations after Reconstruction to the early 20th century when nominally, federally “free” Black people were left at the mercy of segregationist state governments, lynchings, and worse. Overlapping that was the lag between the 15th and 19th Amendments’ extension of voting rights to Black people on paper and the Voting Rights Act making it possible to actually exercise those rights. Critically, these gaps have never been passive social and political periods—there has always been a current of active resistance, movement, and awareness-building about what injustices exist, why they continue, and how to confront them head on. 

By calling our attention to one of the most dramatic and concentrated “gap” moments in Black history, Juneteenth invites us not only to celebrate our liberation, but also to ask ourselves: What gaps might we be living in right now? Which communities and people are loudly proclaimed to be free and equal, or safe, or given a fair chance in life, but in reality are still fighting material conditions, biased systems, or bigoted beliefs others claim have been defeated? There are countless examples, from the widespread legalization of marijuana even as 40,000 people languish in prisons for weed offenses, to the lauding of kinder, gentler immigration policy while the Biden administration has continued to detain and deport Black migrants. In education, the Supreme Court ordered that states end school segregation “with all deliberate speed” more than 60 years ago, but students today attend schools more racially stratified and inequitably resourced than they’ve been in decades. And of course, we’re once again in a moment when the Constitution asserts everyone has voting rights even as multiplying barriers make it impossible for many BIPOC to actually exercise them. 

The work to close those gaps is already well underway: Activists are fighting for legislation to expunge the criminal records and allow for resentencing of people convicted of marijuana offenses; Black immigrants’ rights advocates are speaking out against continued family separation and deportation; students, parents, and activists are bringing the racial reckoning to school; and Black women—as always—are leading the seemingly never ending struggle against voter suppression. There’s always more work yet to do, with more contradictions yet to be resolved. 

And it remains to be seen how long we’ll continue to shoulder those burdens while modern-day government officials and Union soldiers make their maddeningly slow march to deliver and enforce the good word they’re responsible for upholding. That means policy that materially improves Black lives and is equitably, actually enforced by the government, not just more words—which is essentially what the Senate’s passage of a bill declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday amounts to. Symbolism won’t free any of us.

Instead, as Juneteenth and its significance become more widely acknowledged, let it serve as a reminder to take stock of where we are now, and what fights still remain to close the gap between the nation’s highest stated ideals and actual “freedom for all.” 

Ashton is an accomplished writer and editor—and recovering lawyer—whose work focuses on the intersection of race, culture, and law. Her writing has been published by The Washington Post, Slate magazine,...