How Pharrell Williams Helped Virginia Make Juneteenth a Holiday — Through the Governors Blackface Scandal

A year ago, in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic, Pharrell Williams braved air travel to head to his home state of Virginia and stand beside Governor Ralph Northam as he called for Juneteenth, marking the day in 1865 (June 19) when the last slaves in Texas learned of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, to be declared a state holiday.

The politician, a doctor by trade, had been in office less than two years and had already found himself marred in controversy after a yearbook photo from his time in medical school resurfaced in February 2019 — it showed Northam posing with two men, one in blackface and the other in what looked like the garb of a Ku Klux Klan member.

As calls for Northam to resign gained in volume, Williams intervened. “We had a conversation about it and I told him my position: that I thought that he should step down, and he said that he wouldn’t,” Williams recounted to Variety in 2020. “He told me, ‘I’m going to work for this position.’ And I said, ‘I’m gonna hold you to it. I’m going to be the rock in your shoe.’”

The proposition Williams laid out: sign an executive order making Juneteenth a state holiday. Were it not for the controversy, “that might not have gotten done,” added Williams. “If you’re going to sit in this position, then you’ve got to work, and he really did put a lot of points on the board since he got in that situation. It made me think it was meant for him to be the person in a position to help — that he could be an ally and an advocate and to help us move this across the line. There’s a lot he can do.”

And Northam has. As detailed in a New York Times interview published earlier this week, the Governor embarked on a listening tour, educated himself on white privilege and the Black experience by reading such books as “White Fragility” and “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and watching documentaries like “13th.” He’s also instituted several policy changes focused on racial justice and equality and directed funds to Black institutions.

At the June 16, 2020 press conference, Williams, the Grammy-winning artist, songwriter, producer and fashion trendsetter, who has effectively championed recording contract reforms for Black talent, shared his point of view, telling lawmakers gathered: “I’ve done my ‘Finding Your Roots’ episode. And, yes, all of my ancestors were enslaved. My ancestors sacrificed their lives so that I could stand here today and use my voice.”

As Virginia prepares to honor its first Juneteenth holiday statewide, and on the precipice of national recognition, Williams’ powerful speech from a year ago feels all the more relevant. Read excerpts from it below:

“This is what listening looks like. It makes sense that Virginia officially recognizes this this holiday in this powerful way. And that’s because it’s been overlooked for so long. This is our chance in Virginia to lead by example. This is our chance to lead to truly embrace the importance of Juneteenth and treat it as a celebration of freedom that Black people deserve and the African diaspora deserves — worldwide, by the way.”

“[With] everything that happened to us — being held captive and enslaved — we didn’t leave. We lost our own names and lost our own cultures and religions. We lost everything and we still forgave and we made room for the advocates and allies that we needed in the abolitionist movement to change things. While we may not be enslaved in that way now, there’s economic slavery, so there’s still room for, not just activists, but abolitionists.”

“This is about proper recognition and it’s about celebration. This is a chance for our government, our corporations and our citizens to all stand in solidarity with their African-American brothers and sisters. …  How far will they go? For me personally, I would like to see corporations who call Virginia their home lead the rest of the country — give people a paid day off so we can all stand in solidarity. This is our America. It’s everybody’s America, right?

“Our country excels at celebrating Independence Day. But it’s not perfect, Juneteenth deserves the same level of recognition and celebration. On July 4, 1776, not everybody was free and celebrating their Independence Day. So here is our day. And if you love us, it’ll be your day, too. … There’s so many people, so many demographics in our country that haven’t had their day yet. Your days are coming. We are seeing an entirely new generation of leaders emerging right now and they’re potent.”

“Today’s announcement is as much about the new generation as it is our African ancestors in the sky. This new generation is speaking up and staring down systemic racism with so much bravery. It’s inspiring. There is no turning back. With love, with humility and respect, we’re only moving in one direction now: forward; the future.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday, as 47 states and the District of Columbia had previously enacted. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) made the motion to pass the legislation, and no other senator objected. Earlier on Tuesday, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) — who blocked the bill from passing last year — dropped his objection to the holiday. In short order, the House too voted unanimously in favor of recognizing Juneteenth nationally. The bill now heads to the Oval Office for President Biden’s signature.

Watch Pharrell Williams and the “grandmother of Juneteenth” Ms. Opal Lee in conversation at Variety’s Changemakers virtual summit on June 18 at 9:30 a.m. PT. 

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