The most recently confirmed Federal holiday, Juneteenth, is coming up this weekend. Though Black Americans have been celebrating the holiday commemorating emancipation since 1865, Congress made it a national holiday last year. For those of us celebrating this year, we are balancing feelings of both Black joy and many recent disheartening racist attacks.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when the Union General Gordon Granger finally arrived to inform the slaves in Galveston, Texas that they were free. However, he broke the news two years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The good news was both sweet and bitter.
The Blacks in Galveston, Texas could have bemoaned how little the United States republic cared about them. Or adopted the attitude that the late news rubbed in that they were still oppressed people. But although they learned about their freedom belatedly, they threw a massive celebration with music, dance and song that Black American have repeated ever since.
Juneteenth’s symbolic resonances run deeper than an excuse to throw a party. Over 150 years ago, the slaves in Galveston heard ”freedom” sounding in their ears. Freedom sounded sweet. But they understood that there would be little immediate change in their lives now that they were emancipated. Still they celebrated the belief in a new beginning. They believed real freedom was destined in the times coming.
Sometimes called the Black 4th of July, Juneteenth still today represents the expectation that freedom from poverty and injustice will come. It’s a day of rejuvenation — for Black Americans to rise refreshed in the morning, ready to recommit to survival and protest.
When Congress made Juneteenth a national holiday, the nation was still reeling in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a murderous cop. To be clear, Juneteenth is the opposite of blind acceptance that because George Floyd’s killer was convicted ”everything is ok.” It’s a joyful break taken with full awareness that studies show that police violence against Black Americans continues. We use the day to re-energize, then continue to protest against racist police violence, excessive Black unemployment, voter disenfranchisement, or any of the many other issues facing our community.
The threats against our community are many and they include virulent hate mongering.
Only last month, a shooter in Buffalo, NY went on a rampage and killed 10 Black Americans in a grocery store. The culprit composed online documents stating his intention to eliminate the Black population before they made white people obsolete. He was an adherent to the so-called “replacement theory” which is peculiarly popular in right-wing circles. Its followers think there is a vast conspiracy designed to replace white people.
In their racist and antisimetic minds, demographic shifts in populations — including the fact that people of color will become a majority in America in 2050 — don’t occur as an inevitable result of living in a global world where people of color have rights. Instead, they contend, it’s an evil conspiracy, master-minded by wealthy Jews.
Co-Executive Director of The Center for Popular Democracy, Damerio Cooper, recently wrote that paranoid replacement theories have infiltrated the country through the words of GOP lawmakers like Rep. Scott Perry, Rep Elise Stefanik, and Fox News Pied Piper Tucker Carlson. He argued that given its widespread popularity in right-wing circles, paranoid “replacement theories” fueled the blind anger behind the January 6 attack on our country and freedom to vote by MAGA Republicans.
The heart and soul of Juneteenth is completely at odds with this divisive racist propaganda, or with the anti-Critical Race Theory campaign which has swept the county, spearheaded by conservative legislators passing legislation that limit schoolteachers’ ability to address America’s racial crimes (sometimes overt, like lynching, sometimes covert, like the history of redlining in America). This campaign is a ploy to whitewash history for coming generations who haven’t been equipped to understand systemic racism.
Juneteenth’s spirit is both festive and educational. Learning the story of the slaves in Galveston, Texas who weren’t informed about freedom is an act of historical reclamation. Its spirit should lead us to deepen our knowledge of all aspects of Black history.
For all the fun Americans will have on the 19th, it isn’t just a party. It’s about the faith that the country that eventually ended slavery and eventually passed civil rights legislation can do more.
I am glad that Juneteenth has become a national holiday because this means that America respects the importance of the Black experience. Furthermore, it recognizes its values are American values. But let’s not dilute it. I hope that millions will let their hair down on June 19th, and then they will join hands with Black Americans in the fight for justice.