A Primer to Juneteenth (and a polite heads-up for white observers)
Independence Day is fast approaching, with the Fourth of July only a couple of weeks away. But the American colony’s big split from mother England really only presented a small, select group of people with newfound freedom and agency: adult, landowning white men.
To a black population kept in servitude for nearly a century after John Hancock scribbled his John Hancock on that famed roll of parchment, the celebration of an “Independence Day” has a bitterly ironic bite. And what white America may not know is that Independence Day is indeed approaching, but much sooner than they’d think.
In fact, the celebration of Juneteenth is already in full swing.
The first-ever Juneteenth took place on June 19, 1865 (hence the portmanteau). Robert E. Lee and the Confederate forces surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, bringing an end to the Civil War. Today, we’d have crafted our #peaceoutslavery hashtags and disseminated this information across the globe before Ulysses S. Grant could accept the surrender, but news traveled slowly in the pre-Twitter, pre-phone world. The last pocket of America to receive the good news was Texas, then home to over 250,000 slaves.
In the city of Galveston on June 19th, Union General Gordon Granger delivered the federal order that all men and women held in servitude were emancipated and that the state of Texas would no longer condone slavery. Of course, the battle for respect and acceptance from America’s white populace was far from over, but in the moment, abolition was a pretty huge win for African-Americans. There was rejoicing in the streets, and from that year on, Juneteenth has symbolized black pride and commemorated black achievements.
Though unknown to the mass of white Americans, Juneteenth traditions have remained strong over the ages. In the years following the Civil War, some former slaves and their families would make an annual pilgrimage to Galveston for Juneteenth celebrations. Observance of the holiday declined during the early 1900s, with schoolteaching beginning to take the place of homeschool and history textbooks hastily glossing over some key components of the American experience. But with the surge of the Civil Rights movement in the ‘50s and ’60s, black visibility was on the upswing again and Juneteenth observance returned with a vengeance.
It’s remained popular through the present day, with most Juneteenth celebrations centering around BBQs, though observance also comes in the form of rodeos, fishing, or baseball games. In any instance, food and drink is a focal point of the celebration, with meats slow-roasting all day to perfection for nighttime merriment. Back in 2010, the White House even issued an official statement on behalf of President Obama:
Our nation is stronger because of the generations of struggles for equal rights and social justice, and our culture is richer because of the contributions of African Americans throughout our history. This is why Juneteenth, while rooted in the history of a people, can be celebrated by all Americans*.
However, Juneteenth isn’t about colorblindness. Meaningful, true equality mandates that we acknowledge our differences, the disparate racial histories at play, and our place in them. Juneteenth is time set aside to celebrate those differences, and give thanks for the powers that cross racial boundaries and bring people together: decency, understanding, and kindness. It’s an expression of black joy, but the more voices making that joyful noise, the stronger the freedom rings.
* I know I just talked about how Juneneenth is a holiday we can and should all be acknowledging and celebrating, but white people have been very good at making things like this more about us. Elvis made rock-and-roll about white people, Eminem did his darnedest to make hip-hop about white people#, and Rachel Dolezal has made being a black person about white people. So, fellow white people, if you are invited to a Juneteenth celebration, please be cool. And when I say “be cool”, I mean it in the classical sense, in the Birth of the Cool sense. By which I mean don’t embarrass yourself or the friends you came with.
(originally posted on June 19, 2015)
Submitted To Civil Rights
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