Can we ever break free from cycles of trauma and defeat? Can we help a family avoid the kinds of decisions we have made in our life? Writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples poses these questions in her debut feature “Miss Juneteenth“. The film, set in Fort Worth, Texas, follows the journey of single mother Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) who has big dreams for her 15-year-old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to be crowned the winner of the Miss Juneteenth pageant, a scholastic beauty pageant honoring Juneteenth—the holiday commemorating June 19th 1865 when Texas slaves finally learned they were freed, two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The pageant aims to teach young Black girls not only about beauty but also about etiquette and cultural heritage. However, the biggest prize of all is a full-ride scholarship to a historically Black college, which fuels Turquoise’s desperation for Kai to win the crown.
The film peels back the curtain behind Turquoise’s desperation—Turquoise won the same pageant when was younger and went to Prairie View A&M University on a full-ride scholarship but dropped out when she became pregnant with Kai. Turquoise has a near tyrannical approach for Kai to win the pageant as she did, not allowing Kai to try out for her school’s dance team or even dance for the talent segment instead of reciting Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” poem just like Turquoise did. Turquoise pressuring Kai, her Turquoise’s “mini-me” and course-correcting her own mistakes through Kai shows the fascinating dichotomy between Black mothers and daughters via transgenerational trauma.
Transgenerational trauma is a theory that trauma can be passed down from the first generation of survivors to further generations via post-traumatic stress disorder. For Black people, our trauma began in 1619 when the first enslaved Africans were brought to America. Despite our emancipation from slavery, systemic racism embedded in our country’s institutions—like the Jim Crow laws and police brutality we continue to experience today—have cut Black people’s lives unjustly short. A Black child’s first lesson on how to “make it” in the world is to be twice as good as others, just to be good enough. What we learn is that to enjoy the same opportunities as our white counterparts, we need to work ourselves to the bone, endure abuse by the microaggressive behavior of our non-Black peers, teachers, employers, and strive to attain perfection. We endure so much, hoping the next generation has it easier. But because systemic racism lives on perpetually, we pass down trauma instead of allowing Black children to grow up without the burden of assimilating in a majority white world.
For Black women, the trauma is ten-fold. Black women not only inherit racial trauma, but we’re also inheriting trauma from sexual and gender-based violence. As a Black woman, I was taught people will view me as angry and unapproachable, and people will try to “bring me down a notch” because of it. In the film, Turquoise worked several jobs, is shamed by her alcoholic mother Charlotte (Lori Hayes), disappointed by her estranged husband Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), struggled to pay pageant expenses, and she barely kept it together. Being a “Strong Black Woman” isn’t healthy—it’s an idea that doesn’t allow us to be vulnerable. We’re aren’t allowed to make mistakes. It’s what causes our mortality rate in medicine to be so high. It’s what causes a backlash when Black women speak out about the abuse we suffer from others, even from people in our own community. Being a “Strong Black Woman” makes others lack empathy for us. Black women are strong because we have no choice but to be. We see Black mothers lead the family, work to exhaustion, and perform emotional labor for others, and Black girls think that’s how they have to be. By the film’s midpoint, Turquoise all but crumbles from the pressure to keep it together and be strong for her daughter.
Turquoise’s own regret and deep-rooted anger at her deferred dreams threaten Kai’s future. Turquoise and Kai have been living in poverty for so long that it would seem fair to push Kai, so she wouldn’t have to suffer like Turquoise. By the film’s end, Turquoise breaks the cycle by letting her daughter be who she wants to be.
I see some of my childhood reflected in Turquoise and Kai’s relationship. My parents pushed for my brother and me to get good grades, be involved in extracurricular activities, attend summer camps across the country, and indeed, it felt overbearing at times. My involvement in AKA Teens, a community service program founded by an Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated chapter in my hometown to mentor young Black women, during high school involved participating each year in a scholarship ball like the film’s Miss Juneteenth pageant. Even though I felt that I wasn’t always allowed to explore other passions, or even rest sometimes, I do understand my parents’ goals. It’s hard for Black parents to talk to their children about issues, but they have to effectively communicate and add context for sacrifices and decisions made for them. It matters for Black people to learn how to navigate in this world that is not at all on their side. In previous generations, learning rules of etiquette and going to college allowed for them to get a seat at a table not usually inclusive to Black people.
We see this through the HBO “Watchmen” series when Regina King’s Angela Abar takes a lethal dose of her grandfather Will’s (Louis Gossett Jr.) Nostalgia pills giving her the ability to see his life and feel his anger through his memories in a series of flashbacks. Angela sees that the racism Will experienced drove him to fight as the vigilante Hooded Justice. His actions are mirrored generations later through her desire to be a police officer to avenge her parents’ death and her later career as vigilante Sister Night to fight the white supremacist group Cyclops. When Angela and Will reunite for a final conversation, Will tells Angela that our “wounds need air” to heal so we can move beyond generations of pain.
When Turquoise finally sees Kai and sees what makes her happy, “Miss Juneteenth” seems to find an answer to lifting generational burdens that have plagued Black families. Black families need a foundation based on love and transparency, instead of raising our children on trauma and regret. Younger generations are meant to breaking these cycles, but it’s important for parents to help their children understand the generational hardship they come from, while still allowing them to flourish. Black mothers have to show Black daughters how to allow themselves to be vulnerable and to celebrate themselves. If the previous generation cannot heal from their flaws and trauma and continue to hide behind it, then the next generation cannot flourish.
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