June is upon us and summer is finally here. Although the season still finds us tucked away in our homes, celebrations–from birthdays to holidays–are in full swing. One of my favorite holidays of the year is Juneteenth. Juneteenth is commemorated as the oldest known celebration marking the end of slavery. On June 19,1865, Union General Gordon Granger led thousands of federal troops to Galveston, Texas, to announce that the Civil War had ended and slaves had been freed.
However, the actual date does not mark a moment of major historical significance like the end of the Civil War or the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Rather, Juneteenth honors the moment when liberation finally reached the most entrenched areas of the former Confederacy, more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. In many ways this holiday represents how freedom and justice have always been delayed for the Black community in America. As we all know, the end of slavery brought about a whole new wave of Black death in the form of lynching, imprisonment, and Jim Crow laws. We continue to see the legacy of slavery play out today as Black communities are disproportionately dying from police violence, homelessness, and disease.
So, if Juneteenth is a holiday to celebrate the emancipation of over 4 million enslaved people, why isn’t it more widely known and observed? The question of Juneteenth’s renown relates to America’s larger relationship with slavery. Just as the true weight and price of slavery has not earned its rightful acknowledgment in the narration of American history, so is Juneteenth seen as a part of Black culture rather than a part of American culture.
White America’s resistance to fully contend with the brutal legacy of slavery and its accompanying inequities is at the root of many of our nation’s social injustices today. Karlos Hill, a professor of African and African-American studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of Beyond the Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory, reminds us, “As a nation, as a collective, we’ve never really acknowledged the 250-plus years of slavery, and the depth of it, and the trauma it caused and the wealth it created. We haven’t really had an accounting for that.”
The first step to reconciling and healing our collective trauma around slavery is acknowledgment and visibility. How can we celebrate Juneteenth as a national day of reverence for the years of enslavement that established the bedrock of the American economy? Here are a few ideas to start:
Make Juneteenth a National Holiday
We honor our veterans and presidents, but not our slaves. Today, all but four states celebrate Juneteenth as a holiday, however it is not federally recognized as a national holiday. Two years ago the US Senate passed a resolution to recognize “Juneteenth Independence Day” as a national holiday, but it has not yet been approved in the House. The National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, an organization based in Mississippi, has worked to get Juneteenth recognized or observed as a national holiday for years. By recognizing Juneteenth as a day to rest, to celebrate, and to honor our enslaved ancestors, we not only pay our respects but also provide space to acknowledge the sacrifices of a race for a nation.
The history of slavery does not occupy enough space in public school curriculum taught across the country. I learned about Juneteenth later in my adolescence and it wasn’t from a textbook. The silence and erasure around slavery in our education system stems from a white fear of equity. It is no secret that history is written in the voice of the victor. However, recounting and teaching it to younger generations not only aims to acknowledge and shed light on our pain and trauma, but it seeks to heal those wounds to keep from repeating history. Until then, it is on us to educate our communities about our history and our rights. The NAACP hosts annual Juneteenth gatherings to teach new generations about the day.
What would reparations for Black folks in America look like today? Forty acres and a mule? How can you begin to reimburse the depth of slavery and its legacy? While the case for reparations is a political justice concept that is widely debated, it has never come close to being instituted. Inversely, some slave owners were actually rewarded when slavery was abolished as a compensation for their loss of property. In The Case for Reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates highlights how, “no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap. Reparations would seek to close this chasm. But as surely as the creation of the wealth gap required the cooperation of every aspect of the society, bridging it will require the same.”
In this way reparations would not only seek to begin creating equal footing among races in America, but it would also serve as a monetary debt to be paid to those most closely affected by slavery. If the government can provide stimulus relief to all American citizens during a pandemic, can a similar structure be applied to Black Americans? Unfortunately, I do not have the answers here, but these questions are important to pose as we consider equitable compensation.
Whether it’s raising awareness through a digital campaign or hosting a socially distant cookout, celebrate this holiday in your own way. I love indulging in classic Black Southern food and supporting local Black businesses in my neighborhood. Highlight your favorite Black activists and artists. Use this day to acknowledge our history by seeding joy in Black culture, community, and resilience.
Undoubtedly, this year’s celebrations of Juneteenth fall against an especially painful backdrop of the disproportionate death of Black folks from COVID-19, a result of institutional and systemic racism embedded from slavery. As we celebrate in quarantine this year, remain cognizant of the ways we can use this holiday as an opportunity to memorialize and honor the Black lives lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.