Juneteenth: More than a Party

And it’s about more than the end of slavery

It happened with dizzying speed: Congress made June 19, Juneteenth, a federal holiday on June 16, 2021.

Democrats agreed with President Joe Biden that a Black-themed national holiday accompanying MLK Day was necessary after the protest marches over George Floyd’s murder, and Republicans got on board after former President Donald Trump was caught embarrassed over not knowing Juneteenth landed on the very date he’d planned to begin his reelection campaign. Trump awkwardly suggested making it a national holiday.

And thus, George Floyd, a victim of American racism, and Trump, a bigot, may be the figures most responsible for achieving the bipartisan agreement. That is not an auspicious beginning, it’s a comedy of errors.

I’ve already noted many Black writers have concerns that the full import of Juneteenth is at risk of being sold short. I share those concerns, even as the first national Juneteenth holiday appears to have been a spirited success in Santa Fe and elsewhere. I don’t begrudge mass audiences of all races having a great party—except this particular party is more than that. What is Juneteenth? At least more people now have a basic understanding than ever.

As the story goes, in June, 1865, a Union general informed a group of slaves in Galveston, Texas, that they were free. They belatedly received the news after both the Emancipation Proclamation in January and the Confederate surrender that April. These enslaved people didn’t know the South had lost the Civil War and, after getting the news, they threw a joyous celebration. That’s Jubilation Day, or Juneteenth.

Initially, Juneteenth was celebrated in Texas. But its popularity spread across the country and throughout Black communities in the 1930s and, up until this year, Juneteenth celebrations have largely been intra-communal Black get-togethers with shows presented to Black audiences by Black entertainers.

This history is significant to understanding why Juneteenth survived. Why did this particular event strike a chord and inspire such devotion? And what is it saying? It’s slightly peculiar on the surface level to focus an emancipation event on slaves who were purportedly late learning they were free. For most non-Black Americans to really get it, they have to appreciate the Black folklore tradition (sometimes called signifying) which mingles humor, irony and pathos. The better this is understood, the clearer it is that Juneteenth is a time for celebration—with a slight wink—and social critique. To that end, I recommend two literary texts that capture the spirit of the holiday, firstly, Frederick Douglass’ 1852 oration “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” The great abolitionist asks, “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?” Douglass also calls Independence Day commemoration “a sham.” The other text is Ralph Ellison’s contemporary novel, Juneteenth, published in 1999. It’s a massive satirical tome portraying an America crippled by racism and hypocrisy, swirling around the metaphor of the two-faced Emancipation Proclamation.

Now let’s re-examine the Juneteenth narrative. The Union general who informed the Texas slaves they were “free” was more public functionary than liberator, and his late arrival is proof that Black Americans can’t trust the world at large to define emancipation. The Texas slaves obviously hadn’t noticed significant social changes that would have indicated freedom; the promised “freedom” wasn’t real. Still, the slaves threw a celebration party. Better late than never. Better now than never. They celebrated because they knew they would recognize emancipation beyond a shadow of a doubt when they saw it.

Ironies like these have spoken to Black Americans by portraying an awkward relationship with America; Juneteenth has always been an inherent critique of the Fourth of July (one might even call it a parody) that provided relief and uplifted millions of Blacks who suffered segregation, disenfranchisement, lynching and criminal injustice under a dubious American democracy. Juneteenth picnics and barbecues have been a real-life enactment of Frederick Douglass’ Fourth of July speech, a protest act for Black Americans to enjoy their own commemorations based on a nuanced tale of struggle rather than submit to the Fourth of July’s one-dimensional narrative simplifications. The icing on the cake was that the unofficial Black July Fourth came with our own food and music.

A Juneteenth national holiday can only truly be valuable if all Americans learn from it. Ideally, MLK Day, Black History Month and Juneteenth might make a powerhouse trio instilling civil rights commemoration, historical education and cultural appreciation. Or will we instead see overwhelmingly white Juneteenth audiences who want a good show without thinking too much about slavery’s cruelty in the past—or slavery’s legacy in the present? Will we instead get simplification, silence and cultural appropriation? Looking at MLK Day doesn’t instill total confidence: It’s obvious King’s activist anti-poverty agenda and anti-war stance have been watered down like a bipartisan negotiation.

I have no doubt many legislators who voted for the new holiday merely see it as an opportunity for Blacks to have a barbecue and sing. They simultaneously support measures that discourage Black voting and even ban discussion of racism in classrooms. Such steps make Juneteenth feel like a sentimental travesty. In the segregated past, the politics of the holiday were implicit. Now they need to become explicit. Juneteenth events historically create private spaces for Blacks to air their feelings on oppression and disenfranchisement. Now that it’s a national event, let’s keep its real spirit alive.

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