On Observing Juneteenth

Those who have never resided in Texas, or any southern state, can sometimes forget that Juneteenth was recognized in various Black communities long before it was accepted by white society. It was a holiday celebrated by the descendants of the enslaved; an Independence Day of sorts for the millions of people intentionally excluded from the 1776 declaration “We the People.”

These communities and their long-standing traditions live on to this day. Many events, old and new, still include red foods to signify the resilience of Black people throughout bondage. Black-eyed peas and other “good fortune foods” are still present too. But this new era of widespread recognition brings with it a force that seems to turn the focus from the importance of the holiday towards a full-blown celebration of Blackness for the masses.

The broad appreciation of Juneteenth in 2021 brought a holiday to unaware, mostly white, Americans that focused on celebration and commemoration as to why it exists and its significance for Black people. Education and remembrance have always been essential to Juneteenth and this first year was full of learning opportunities.

In the early days of the holiday, the Freedmen’s Bureau would use this day to teach the previously enslaved about their new rights. Attendees at some festivals today, like those on the East Coast, make an offering of fruit to the ocean to honor their ancestors. In comparison, other celebrations may read the 1865 declaration from General Granger.

But holidays don’t keep their meaning long in America. Just as with Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, recognition by the white American masses brings with it an intentional divorcing from the original meaning and significance.

This leads to traditions becoming gimmicks. Large profit-focused corporations, like Walmart, can sell items in Pan-African colors without understanding their significance (or the fact that the original Juneteenth flag is red, white, and blue for a significant reason.) And white people across the country can brush past the personal aspect in hopes of enjoying a day that is no longer about the realities of slavery.

Juneteenth has become a catchall holiday, aimed at celebrating Black people but not understanding our reality. I am not saying that Black people should not be celebrated or that parties should not be had. The simple fact of our continued existence, despite the many efforts of a settler colonial state, is enough to warrant an annual party at the very least.

But Blackness, and our past, is not monolithic. Juneteenth should always provide a history lesson and an opportunity for reflection, especially for those who may not see themselves in the celebration.

This holiday signifies the ending of bondage—only in the states of the Confederacy, do not ask Delaware how long it took to ratify the 13th Amendment—for our ancestors, but what meaning can this date hold for the descendants of those who believe themselves to be white?

It is not an easy thought to weigh, but a necessary one. We cannot hope to understand the need for Juneteenth without reckoning with America’s persistent relationship with slavery and the whiteness born to justify it.

While everyone may not be the focus of the celebration, there is very often a significance for everyone to understand. This is the reality of most holidays. Not everyone is a mother, but their importance in our society can be understood by all. Not everyone is related to a person in the military, but their role in getting America to where it is today should be widely known. Significance may look different to some, but its presence cannot be ignored.

Juneteenth provides an opportunity, as a nation, to do the work we so often spoke about in 2020, but only if the meaning of the holiday remains part of the celebration. We must push against the American urge to co-opt another Black holiday and not let it become about corporate profits and barbecue.

If we fail, we will never understand the totality of our history, and in turn, never allow any of us to be free.

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