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How About We Don't Make Juneteenth Another Generic Holiday

It’s the third anniversary of Juneteenth as a national holiday, and we still haven’t quite nailed the vibe. As the first (and only) commemoration of the end of chattel slavery in the United States, it doesn’t really lend itself to sales, merchandising, or tote bag slogans. But it’s also too much to ask people to spend a federal holiday in June contemplating the atrocities inherent in centuries of hereditary enslavement. It’s just a lot, you know?

Yet four years after the massive and historic George Floyd protests brought us the measly day off in return, it’s more important than ever to consider how the legacy of slavery has shaped our present. Obviously it’s not an easy balance to strike. Consider that, on one side, most Americans are descended from people who arrived well after 1865, giving them no direct connection to slavery. The centuries of enslavement might be an essential part of the American story, but it’s not part of the story for many Americans. On the other side, Black Americans are already burdened with the work of making people care, while trying to preserve the legacy and history of Black liberation in an increasingly hostile culture. Trapped between apathy and effort, Juneteenth is precariously poised to become a generic holiday, albeit with a green, red and black seasonal glow up in that one aisle of the supermarket and an uptick in kente cloth decorations.

And that’s if your state doesn’t try to make it illegal.

So as someone who can trace ancestry back to bondage, here’s my suggestion: Make Juneteenth a day for antiracism.

First, this focus shifts the meaning of the day from the past to the present. We might not all have a direct connection to slavery, but every single American is affected by the impact of race-codified forced labor—whether that’s through its transformation into Jim Crow and segregation or the pervasive and structural impact of the mentality that some people could be born as property. Instead of the holiday being about a historical wrong that most people can neither conceive of nor connect to, Juneteenth becomes a way to recognize the ongoing harms of discrimination and oppression, and a call to organize ourselves against them.

This has become especially important of late, as efforts to recognize and acknowledge this legacy have been stripped out of school curricula, minimized in public spaces, and forced to the edge of our discourse. The designation of Juneteenth as a federal holiday was a promise to bring African-American history and celebration to the country, to highlight the decades of marginalization and oppression we endured, and to center Black liberation in the national story for a moment. That we have had our important figures suppressed and denied in classrooms as a sop to white feelings is a present injustice that flies directly in the face of the simple pact made to recognize Black humanity.

Next, making Juneteenth a day for antiracism allows the burden to shift away from the Black community and more toward the notion of equality and justice. On a day where Black people are celebrating our liberation, it is essential that non-Black people consider what it means to be free. Which, in my humble opinion, means that Black people are not responsible for handling the well-meaning but fragile emotions of non-Black people, let alone the outright racism and hostility of a society that has never accepted us as equals. A holiday focused on antiracism allows for Black joy in Black spaces around Black liberation without burdening us with what everyone else should be thinking, feeling, or doing. But it also makes non-Black communities interrogate the ways in which they value their own freedom, and what it would mean to match that desire and energy for the Black people across this country who have too often been met with cruelty for asserting the same needs.

Most importantly, giving Juneteenth a purpose reminds us that the United States was, is, and always will be a work in progress. Four years after we took to the streets to protest the blatant and unacceptable murder of George Floyd, we have backslid in brutal ways. We have normalized police abuses; we have rejected racial equity; we have seen our history distorted and our knowledge suppressed. If Juneteenth is to mean anything, it must be a moment where we ask ourselves what can be better — for our Black citizens, and for all of us.

The reason Juneteenth became a celebration in the first place was the product of justice denied. On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation made free all enslaved Black people in territory under the control of the Confederacy, with Lincoln considering human property as “contraband of war.” Technically, the Black people in Texas were free for more than two years before Juneteenth became a thing. But the news of the Proclamation never reached them. The news of the war ending and the surrender at Appomattox didn’t reach them either. Not until the Confederacy was fully defeated in May 1865 west of the Mississippi did emancipation become a real, tangible understanding for the enslaved people of Texas. The resulting adulation and joy cemented the holiday that we recognize today.

So this week, as we enjoy extra time off with friends and family, an opportunity to kick back from work or extend ourselves a vacation, remember the people who learned late that they were free. And imagine what it would mean for every future Juneteenth to be another celebration of liberation — for everyone, and the progress we deserve.

Kaitlin Byrd
Kaitlin Byrd
Knows too much, thinks even more. Has infinite space in her heart for tea and breakfast for dinner. Really from New York, so always ready to cut a bitch.