This week, the U.S. Senate passed unanimously a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. The House of Representatives, less a few handfuls of old white men, passed the same, and Pres. Biden signed it into law yesterday, just in time for today’s newest federal holiday, Juneteenth.
It’s not the first I’ve heard of this holiday, nor am I one of the millions of Americans who first learned of it last year in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. I’m not sure when and where I first learned about it, but it was probably from the people of color I’ve made a point to follow on my social media in the last few years. Certainly by the time my employer added Juneteenth to our calendar of days off, I had a pretty good idea of what the holiday was and meant.
That doesn’t mean there wasn’t more to learn, and I’ve learned a lot more today.
Though not all the articles I’ll be quoting here do so, I’ve decided I need to try to change my own language use regarding the history of American slavery to be more in line with this language guide.
So what is Juneteenth?
On June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, who had fought for the Union, led a force of soldiers to Galveston, Texas, where he made an announcement that the Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862. Those of us who grew up in the former Union states probably learned that the slaves were freed by Lincoln’s proclamation, but context is important.
“It freed people who were a part of the Confederacy at the point at which the Emancipation Proclamation took effect,” Kay Wright Lewis, an associate professor of history at Howard University, tells Morning Edition host Noel King. However, it did not apply to people who were enslaved in areas that the Union Army had conquered or in places that had not seceded but where slavery was legal.
“What Lincoln is responding to is the fact that enslaved people had already been freeing themselves,” she says. “We know that over at least 500,000 formerly or enslaved people freed themselves running to the union lines, running north during the Civil War. And so the Emancipation Proclamation is sort of putting a period on something, on an effort, on a movement that on the ground has already begun.”
While the holiday of Juneteenth is relatively new to me, and maybe to you, getting this day to be recognized and acknowledged as a federal holiday was a long-term battle for many activists, Congresspeople and, famously, this pillar of persistence.
What really happened on Juneteenth — and why it’s time for supremacists and their sympathizers to surrender, by Robin Washington
“If you saw my column about Juneteenth posted here over the last few days, or a previous version on the website of Be’chol Lashon several years ago, or a video version currently presented by Be’chol Lashon, you would know I had bittersweet feelings about the history of the day….
“While the vernacular [of the name Juneteenth] never bothered me, I now know that what I thought was symbolic of my ancestors’ supposed uncertainty was in fact an accurate description of a precise liberation day that never came.”
How Is Juneteenth Celebrated by Black Americans?
Early on, Juneteenth celebrations often involved helping newly freed Black folks learn about their voting rights, according to the Texas State Historical Association. Rodeos and horseback riding were also common. Now, Juneteenth celebrations commonly involve cookouts, parades, church services, musical performances and other public events, Walsh explained.Juneteenth: What It Is And How It’s Observed by Sharon Pruitt-Young
It’s a day to “commemorate the hardships endured by ancestors,” Walsh said. He added, “It really exemplifies the survival instinct, the ways that we as a community really make something out of nothing. … It’s about empowerment and hopefulness.”
Here are some pictures from Juneteenth of days of yore.
Last year in New York City, there were dozens of barbecues and block parties around the city in celebration of Juneteenth, but also ongoing marches for George Floyd, #BlackLivesMatter and all of the names of Black beloveds killed by police across the country.
In fact, Juneteenth is not just an American holiday….
Why This Mexican Village Celebrates Juneteenth, by Wes Ferguson
Descendants of slaves who escaped across the southern border observe Texas’s emancipation holiday with their own unique traditions, on one of the most important days of the year in a village whose name literally means “Birth of the Blacks.”
Not Everyone’s Happy With the Declaration
I’m seeing a lot of my white friends on social media very excited about the declaration of this new federal holiday, and so was I, at least at first. Many of my Black friends and other Black folks I follow on social media, however, have more mixed or even negative feelings about what this move by the Congress. They remember that the last federal holiday to be declared was Martin Luther King, Jr., Day in 1983. But if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that most of the reforms King fought for were either never implemented, or have been torn back down again since he became the subject of a federal holiday.
In many ways, for many people, the declaration of Juneteenth as a holiday is yet another cosmetic change, like taking down monuments to slave-owners, changing the names of military bases and putting up Black Lives Matter signs and banners, while the big systemic barriers remain: police brutality and killing, inequities in medical care, ongoing effects of redlining, the drug war and mass incarceration…. The list goes on and on.
There is a growing discontent in the African American community with symbolic gestures that are presented as progress without any accompanying economic or structural change.Juneteenth As A National Holiday Is Symbolism Without Progress, by Robert A. Brown, Morehouse College
Though Juneteenth is a celebration of the people who endured slavery, the vestiges of slavery and the Jim Crow segregation designed to preserve it continue to this day.
As law professor Michelle Alexander notes, “There are more African American men in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850.”
One of my favorite activists on Twitter is Leslie Mac. She campaigned hard for Elizabeth Warren, helped turn Georgia blue, but what I love most is that I can count on Leslie Mac to lay down the truth as she sees it without sugar-coating.
Finding And Losing Juneteenth, by Leslie Mac
We already know what happens when a part of Black American history is enveloped in the whiteness that is a “federal holiday.”
“This week the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill establishing Juneteenth as a national holiday. Juneteenth is a celebration of Black American resilience that is steeped in the experiences of Black Texans in particular. While it has been wonderful seeing more Black people discover Juneteenth and learn about the legacy of this uniquely Black American holiday, it has been painful to watch the performative commodification of this day take root. We are dangerously close to stripping all meaning out of this day and allowing corporate interests, political performance and capitalism to stake claim to this day.
…we must as organizers question the HOW and WHEN of this action. Why NOW? Why is the Senate so eager to pass a Federal Holiday marking the callous way that enslaved people were notified about the Emancipation Proclamation? What is THEIR goal?”
How Should White People Honor Juneteenth?
Don’t let this declaration by our federal government fall flat. Don’t let this holiday become a commercialized day off for (predominantly white) white-collar Americans while (disproportionately Black) low-income Americans have to go to work as usual for far less than a living wage.
Agitate for big systemic change and reparations, like
- the affordable housing bill to build nearly three million housing units, help scrap zoning rules that make housing more expensive, and help first-time homebuyers in formerly redlined areas
- the big farming reform that attempts to counteract centuries of policies that systematically discriminated against Black farmers; the reforms have been signed into law, but are already being blocked and undermined by Republican officials
- the big IRS auditing reform that would give the IRS a mandate to focus more energy on high-income people, business entities, trusts and estates, and large corporations, instead of the recent trend towards targeting low-wage workers who claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) — a disproportionate share of EITC claimants are Black and Hispanic, and some of the most heavily audited places in the country are predominantly Black communities
- the childcare provisions in the big infrastructure bill — low-income families, who spend more than a third of their income on child care, would benefit disproportionately, and an outsized portion of them are women of color
- the cancellation of $50,000 of student debt per borrower — new research finds that the biggest benefits of cancelling student debt would go to those with the least wealth, and Black families in particular
- raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to at least $15 an hour, or preferably a living wage that would actually allow a person to afford a roof over their head and food and comfort
I’ve also learned a lot about Juneteenth and a lot of other racial and economic justice issues over the last year by following the Twitter account of Representative Cori Bush, who became a community leader of protests in St. Louis after the death of Michael Brown, which led to her election and joining The Squad last year. She urges us not to stop by declaring a holiday, but to follow it with real change.
Rep. Cori Bush: Juneteenth freedom should also mean safety from police violence
The original Juneteenth focused on promise of freedom from bondage and white supremacy. As we usher in new national holiday, let’s expand that fight.
And keep educating yourself. I’m still adding resources to these pages, if you want some ideas on how to start or what to learn next.