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Juneteenth honors Black emancipation and the hope of equality. A federal holiday doesn’t help.


After I heard that the United States Senate unanimously passed a bipartisan bill to make Juneteenth a national holiday —beyond my initial shock that the current U.S. Senate passed any bill with unanimous support — I felt an overwhelming sense of “how did we get here?” With the full array of demands for elected officials to address racial inequities, disparities and injustices impacting Black communities, how did federal recognition of a holiday already celebrated in many Black communities become the thing those leaders chose to do?

Juneteenth is, without question, a special and meaningful holiday for me and for many Black communities — especially many throughout the U.S. South, and specifically in Texas, where the fight for federal recognition of Juneteenth was launched by Black activists such as Opal Lee. The existing holiday has long marked an historic event in the gradual actualization of the emancipation of enslaved people from legalized racial slavery.

After 500 years of slave revolts in the Americas and over 350 years of such revolts in the United States, daily acts of resistance by enslaved people, numerous court cases upholding the legality of chattel slavery, the tremendous work of abolitionists and a Civil War fought in large part because of slavery, June 19, 1865 — when the news of 1863’s Emancipation Proclamation finally reached the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas — was a spectacular moment in the long journey towards abolishing slavery in the United States.

It does not diminish the holiday’s significance to note that it was not the singular moment of Emancipation for enslaved Black people in United States, but rather one tremendous event among a series of historic occurrences that ultimately brought a formal end to the peculiar institution.

Juneteenth is about and for Black people — and more specifically, those Black people descended from enslaved people in Texas and the U.S. South.

Yet, it is hard not to feel the weightlessness of the symbolic gesture of rendering Juneteenth as a day for everyone to “celebrate,” especially given the current growing groundswell of people who oppose schools teaching about the history of racism and anti-Blackness in the U.S.

Many U.S. Senators who supported Juneteenth becoming an official federal holiday also support racist voter suppression, a legal system that disproportionality criminalizes, incarcerates and kills Black people and the aforementioned efforts to ban learning about this nation’s brutal and deeply unjust past. It cost these Senators next to nothing to support the establishment of Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

They will, on the other hand, likely mention their support of Juneteenth when confronted about their backing of racist policies and their refusal to acknowledge the enduring role of anti-Blackness in almost every aspect of U.S. society. Other elected officials as well as corporate executives will use their acknowledgment of Juneteenth to try and evade their reparative accountability to Black communities.

We can’t stop them from making ridiculous claims about their commitment to Black communities because they took a day off to grill hot dogs in the name of the belated Emancipation of enslaved Black people in Texas, but the rest of us can and must be unrelenting in the ongoing struggle to eradicate white supremacy.

Since the federal holiday train has already left the station, though, there are a few things that anyone who is non-Black or unfamiliar with how to honor June 19, 1865 should know.

While Juneteenth is celebratory, its convivial energy among Black celebrants shouldn’t be mistaken for our erasure of or our lack of knowledge about the gruesome history.

Juneteenth is about and for Black people — and more specifically, those Black people descended from enslaved people in Texas and the U.S. South. Black Galveston community members started it to honor and remember their specific road to Emancipation, and its expansion to and adoption by other newly freed Black communities signaled a profound sense of hope, possibility and resilience. On Juneteenth, we celebrate us.

If you aren’t Black, this day — like the other 364 days of the year — should be a day dedicated to unlearning and dismantling white supremacy … period.

After all, not long after Juneteenth celebrations began to occur across the United States, recently emancipated Black people encountered a new era of anti-Black racial terror: Jim Crow.

So while Juneteenth is celebratory, community-centered and jovial in its execution, this convivial energy among Black celebrants shouldn’t be mistaken for our erasure of or our lack of knowledge about the gruesome history and prescient pain the holiday also entails. For non-Black people, Juneteenth could serve as an invitation to unlearn whitewashed histories and to get involved with struggles against racial injustice.

Instead, we have commercials for nationally televised Juneteenth celebrations and global corporations making Juneteenth a paid holiday for all their employees.

Is this all there is for us? With our voting rights under attack, with Black people still disproportionately dying from Covid-19, with anything touching on America’s racism and white supremacy being deemed “critical race theory” and banned from schools, amid an intensifying housing crisis, states passing laws to limit protest, little headway being made on securing a living wage and Black people still being assaulted and killed by police, it’s hard for many of us to find substantive value in a new federal holiday.

When federal recognition of Juneteenth emerges as a substitute for concrete policies or legislation to address the still-unfolding legacies of racial slavery, a federal holiday feels like another slap in the face.

Every generation of Black folks in the U.S. has encountered remixed and newly invented forms of anti-Blackness, reminding us in vicious and too-often fatal ways that the abolition of slavery could not and did not extinguish this nation’s penchant for assailing and attempting to debase Black people.

It is thus impossible to ignore that the catalyst for federal recognition of this holiday was a nearly ten-minute video of a Black man being slowly and remorselessly killed by a police officer filmed a 17-year-old Black girl and the uprising that occurred in the aftermath. It is hard to feel anything other than contempt for the reality that recognition by white people of the magnitude of Juneteenth for millions of Black people comes as the direct result of a Black man’s life being snuffed out for the world to see.

I know there are historical precedents and contemporary examples of Black death causing non-Black people to learn more about (and perhaps be moved to do something about) dismantling white supremacy; multiple polls, however, strongly suggest that this has not been the case here. So when federal recognition of Juneteenth emerges as a substitute for concrete policies or legislation to address the still-unfolding legacies of racial slavery, a federal holiday feels like another slap in the face delivered with a smile and questionable intentions.

A paid holiday for all employees doesn’t bring us closer to reparations for the unpaid debt owed to descendants of enslaved people. A paid holiday doesn’t force the U.S. government to pass legislation that contends with the multitude of ways it sanctioned and continues to uphold white supremacy post-Emancipation. A paid holiday simply lets members of Congress and corporate executives pat themselves on the back for doing less than the bare minimum in confronting slavery and its aftermath.

My only faint hope is that the national recognition inspires at least a few new folks to reexamine U.S. history and to join in our fight for more reparative and transformative efforts for Black communities. Meanwhile, those of us who already celebrated Juneteenth can and must reinvest in the liberatory power of our pleasure on this day through our storytelling, pageantry, our culinary genius, our music, Black congregation, and our resistance. A federal holiday doesn’t change what we do to commemorate.

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