Juneteenth Thoughts

Today is the first day Juneteenth is a national holiday in the United States (for federal workers it was observed yesterday because today is the weekend), and I was asked in email what thoughts I had about it and how I might be celebrating it. Well:

1. I think it’s a fine idea as a national holiday, and I support its inclusion on the holiday calendar (and even if I didn’t it’s there now anyway, so).

2. As a white person, I’ve never celebrated it and I have no idea how to celebrate it, because fundamentally it’s not about me (except in an incidental and not exactly positive way), and other than knowing it exists, I’ve not actively engaged with it before. So, as a matter of prudence, and not wanting to make an ass of myself, I want to take my cues about it from those who have celebrated it all along, which is to say, Black Americans.

The original Juneteenth commemorated the day in 1865 that slaves in Galveston, Texas learned they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation — which, it should be noted, had been issued three years before, so this was not a great look on the white folks who had been keeping that news in their pocket. Juneteenth started being celebrated informally by Black Texans the next year, and over time it’s been recognized by various states, and then this year was made a formal national holiday after unanimous consent in the Senate and by the vast majority of the House, not counting 14 Representatives who seemed bound and determined to make a show out of being racist assholes. And here we are.

I think having Juneteenth as a national holiday is a good thing, but I’m also aware that its elevation to that stature does not come without criticism. As others have noted, the irony of elevating Juneteenth while the Republicans are actively stripping Black people of their ability to vote in a manner unseen since Jim Crow, and banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory (which is almost never taught in elementary or secondary schools, and would almost certainly be unconstitutional to ban at the university level, so this is pure racist pandering), among all the other things systemic racism inflicts on Black Americans, is pronounced. Juneteenth as a national holiday is progress, sure, but it’s progress against a concerted and deeply racist undertow of current Republican politics. The GOP doesn’t get to point to its Juneteenth vote to suggest it’s not the party of white supremacy in this country; the Democrats don’t get to point to it to suggest they’ve done enough.

Likewise for most white folks! At the Black blog The Root, writer Michael Harriot offered up “The Caucasians’ Guide to Celebrating Juneteenth,” which is both amusingly exasperated and deadly seriously caustic about how white people should approach a celebration that is not theirs and is not about them, which has now been made into a national holiday. I suggest reading it because it’s a good read and because it makes points worth making about what Juneteenth is and is not, with specific reference to white folks. It’s useful, if not especially hand-holdy, but it’s not Harriot’s job to hold your (or my) hand on this stuff.

So how am I celebrating Juneteenth this year? Well, I’m not going to try to angle an invite to a cookout, and I’m not going to pretend this means we’ve gotten over racism, so let’s all hug. I’m going to mark Juneteenth by using it as a day of contemplation on what Black Americans have been telling us about white supremacy in the United States, and by thinking about what I need to do to make the United States today better and more equitable for Black Americans specifically and non-white folks generally (and then, you know, doing that, on more than just Juneteenth). I’m going to use it as a day of learning and listening and generally opposing white supremacy. That seems an appropriate way to note the holiday for me.

As for the future, let’s see how it evolves, under the direction of those who have celebrated it all along.

— JS


32 Comments on “Juneteenth Thoughts”

  1. I’m planning to start a reread of ‘The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry’. Its not a comfortable read at all but highly informative.

  2. I have the misfortune of being represented in congress by one of the fifteen a**holes who voted against the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. The only other Californian, Tom McClintock, who voted against represents the other side of my county. He said “I voted against the ‘Juneteenth National Independence Day Act’ because I don’t believe it’s healthy to reach into the dead past, revive its most malevolent conflicts and reintroduce them into our age.” Which, to me, sounds like “Let’s pretend this never happend. Vote for me, white people. USA! USA! USA!”

    My a**hole representative, Doug LaMalfa, said “(The name) could lead to further racial division as it now appears we have two different Independence Days.” Yeah, Doug. We kinda do, don’t we?

  3. Perhaps one of the lessons of Juneteenth is that you can’t be fully free until you know yourself to be free.

    I might add, you can’t be fully free until others acknowledge and respect your freedom.

    Those enslaved people who lived for two years in Texas still in bondage because word of their emancipation was kept from them… their freedom was an abstraction that others could impute to them. But it wasn’t real to them.

    Furthermore, freedom is not simply an inherent right that accrues to individuals. It is a property of societies. A society that doesn’t enable and further the freedom of everyone is not a free society and no one in it is fully free.

    My full freedom depends on yours, and yours depends on mine. We are in this together.

    There is no true freedom without justice. There is no true freedom without equality.

  4. I absolutely relate to “As a white person, I’ve never celebrated it and I have no idea how to celebrate it, because fundamentally it’s not about me.”

    On the one hand, I’m happy to have a new national holiday. On the other hand, I don’t want to be another shitty white person invading the personal space of a group of people who really need some space away from dealing with shitty white people like myself that they have to deal with every other day. It feels like I, as a shitty white person, should NOT be celebrating it because it’s absolutely not my place to, not my holiday.

    Except now technically it’s been declared everybody’s holiday? So what am I supposed to make of that?

    I have similar feelings regarding Pride. I am (technically nominally, as I rarely like anyone but so far when I did it was guys) straight but went one year to cover it when I was a reporter. I got forced to out myself as straight when I was asked why I wasn’t on the local lesbian mailing list, and the other person just stopped talking to me entirely after that revelation. And then I just felt SO ASHAMED OF MYSELF for invading their space where they wanted to get away from the likes of me. I’ve never gone since.

    I won’t be celebrating it, but I wasn’t going to be anyway since I’m doing play rehearsal today.

  5. I think I’ll remain uncomplicated and celebrate it as a day in honor of emancipation. That seems nice.

  6. Juneteenth has been big in the South for a long time. Sadly many white liberals in the North have latched onto it. But it will be ours forever.

  7. Going to a combo birthday party and Juneteenth party where there will be loads of latin and African American musicians and their families. And some of us, of paler skin tones. This particular group of musician friends have often held a bd – Juneteenth celebration on the week of the 18th due to so many of them having been born around then in the same year. Partner is one of them.

    Also — thank you to the poster above for rereading TASC! It is as difficult to read as it was all those years to research and write. But then, it felt we had no choice. We were called to it, and we were chosen by opportunity, so there it is.

  8. Hey John! Love your blog. My dad recently got some DNA analysis done, and (no surprise) he has about 17% Ebo blood (from our slave ancestors). We also have Scottish ancestry (from overseers?), Chinese from indentured labourers, and the big surprise was 17% Italian blood – we still don’t know! To mix it up I have inherited a whole lot of scarcely diluted anglo-scottish blood from my mother.

    So I will celebrate Juneteenth with a lime and double it up with Father’s day cookout.

  9. BTW — a lot of us do participate in celebrations of holidays that aren’t ‘ours’. Many, many, I’m sure, have been invited to seders and other celebrations of that nature. So I think Juneteenth is the same sort of thing. We certainly can celebrate with joy with our friends, even though it is far more personal — in a sense — than for us. For me, the end of slavery in the USA is something I celebrate every day.

    We go to birthday parties of people we don’t know too, because we’ve been invited one way and another.

    We participate in Mardi Gras festivities even if not Roman Catholic about to give up all meat until Easter.

    Celebrating with people in these ways isn’t always pushing oneself in, but building bridges and friendships.

    At least that’s how we see it.

    So however, let us be delighted for Juneteenth.

  10. “Juneteenth as a national holiday is progress, sure, but it’s progress against a concerted and deeply racist undertow of current Republican politics.”

    Couldn’t agree more.

    This is a nice, safe and symbolic gesture, a long overdue acknowledgment of the objective reality that black folks are human and that this “great” nation is fashioned from their literal and figurative bones.

    But against the backdrop of self-congratulatory politicians rises the Spector of the not-so-distant past, one in which the police killings of black folks are either handwaved or celebrated by large swaths (large swaths specifically meaning tens of millions) of Americans, and white supremacists of all degrees and types are being characterized in many circles as the “victims” of a woke mindset that is “destroying America.”

    And you are also correct in your assertion that this isn’t some big boon for democrats who, at present, appear to be giving off the “[we’ve] always been good to you people” (The Color Purple) vibe.

    Hey democrats?

    Want something historic to celebrate? Work as hard as you can to keep certain folks from dragging this nation back into the mid-20th century, when publicly and unashamedly existing while black (and thus offensive or frightening to white people) was a capital offense.

    Also, while there is certainly no shortage of “shitty white people” in this country, shitty and white aren’t mutually inclusive concepts, particularly when we’ve got the shittiest of all white supremacists with brown skin working overtime to carry water for their republican overseers and massas (looking at you, Rubio, Owens, Scott etc.).

    When I think “shitty white people,” I think of Marjorie “miscegenation is bad” Taylor Green, Ron-anon “white insurrectionists are less dangerous than brown protesters” Johnson, Ted “Cancun” Cruz (a self-loathing passer if there ever was one) and Joe “I’ll sacrifice the voting rights of POC in the name of bipartisan ship and the white supremacist West Virginians who’d vote me out” Manchin.

  11. “As a white person, I’ve never celebrated it and I have no idea how to celebrate it, ”

    True for me also, but if I’m invited to a Juneteenth celebration, I will definitely accept.

  12. I remember when MLK day was declared a holiday, mom was pissed because the county (she was a librarian) took away a holiday she loved with, quote, “this piece of shit”.

    Both my parents were racists but didn’t know it (yet). (dad later founded a church with a black pastor, the third and final church he founded (Sonrise in Santee, CA, if you care). When dad died we tried to get pastor Tony to give the eulogy but Tony was too ill himself to do so. But I digress)

    Off topic. When I was in 5th grade (1968) our teacher made a big deal of a black kid joining our class next week. He joined, I said “hey nigger, how you doing”, he met me after class and beat the ever loving shit out of me. I had no clue why.

    Late 70s. I was an electronic tech working nite shift (4-12). Janitor used to come in, head to the CEO’s office, change stations to his favorite, crank it up, and do his vacuuming/whatever until he was done. He’d come in about 7 PM, be done about 10.

    Anyway, one night about the CEO shows up in our little universe. Our universe was separated from the CXX suites behind closed doors that, while we knew what Wilbert was doing, we couldn’t hear it unless he opened certain heavy doors.

    Wilbert was taking a break, just shooting the shit with us, as he did every night, when said CEO walked in. Seems he’d just flown in from some meeting somewhere and wanted to grab something from his office..

    The CEO called Wilbert to his office, we all thought he was fired. Wilbert came back, the CEO told him “Long as you put my station back and fix the volume you’re good”.

    Wilbert, if you worked for Loral Instrumentation in around 1980 I’d love to hear from your.

    Fast forward to the 80s, AIDs is a big deal. Trust me, I knew all the jokes, “Anally Inserted Death Sentence”, etc. Then in ’91 I worked for a company with a lot of gay guys. One of them never bathed, never washed his hair, and was a living analog of pigpen from Peanuts.


    Another guy, on his birthdays, rented a yacht and invited all his friends and co-workers to his birthday party. This was when I found out pigpen was gay, before I thought he was just gross. That was also when I realized how many of my co-workers were gay.

    My attitude towards gay folks took a serious thumping for the better that night. Keep in mind I’m still in my 20s.

    I guess my points are:
    1) never judge a, um, group of folks until you meet one of them and talk to them
    2) Make my own blog instead of stealing John’s bandwidth.
    3) Wish there was a preview button…..

  13. There was a time when the GOP ‘base’ was largely racist, but now the racists are the GOP base. And the GOP leadership dam’ well knows it.

  14. Sarah Marie:

    You’re cutting and pasting again, aren’t you. It still puts in mark-up. Please don’t (or if you do, remember to “paste as plain text”).

  15. It’s not a national holiday. The president cannot create a national holiday. It’s a FEDERAL holiday which means simply that federal employees get the day off.

  16. June 19th is the birthday of a fellow physicist I worked with for years, and although I am not black, I was always cognizant of Juneteenth, and my colleague’s birthday was always a reminder to me of a date very important to a lot of Americans. And even though I never invited myself to a Juneteenth picnic, I have been fortunate enough to have been invited by someone hosting a party which included some of the best dishes one will ever eat!

  17. Having lived in Texas most of my life, I’m obviously familiar with Juneteenth. It’s a state holiday and articles about it and celebrations of it have often been in the paper and other places.

    As part of the “Becoming Beloved Community” effort, my Episcopal Church had already dedicated the month to Juneteenth, discussing and acknowledging the history of this country, and the rest. For instance, one night we watched together a half hour PBS special on the history of racism and segregation and their enduring present effects in Austin. And then a church member who was the daughter of one of the activists in the 60s and 70s and who grew up knowing many of the people, especially the women, in the special, shared her experience and memories. Other things, including a special service commemorating Pauli Murray, are scheduled.

    If you’re white and aren’t part of a community already doing that sort of work, there are lots of excellent resources online. I would offer Tori Williams Douglass’ White Homework as one excellent example, but there are many.


    Please don’t ask your Black acquaintances to explain it to you, though.

  18. @Scott:
    Agreed; I can’t tell you how offensive it is to have to explain the same things again and again and to be blamed for the ignorance that results from folks being unwilling to do their own damn research.


    Caught! And noted; will resume typing in the field. .

  19. I’ve been using MLK Day as an opportunity to re-read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” so I expect that equally illuminating literature would be appropriate for Juneteenth. I should go looking for some good choices.

  20. @Don French

    The President may not be able to create a national holiday (I’d need to check). Bu Congress can, insofar as that can be done from the top down, rather than by adoption by the people at large. And unless I have badly misunderstood, that is exactly what Congress has done, by a rather lopsided vote. They can’t require anyone to celebrate it, although a number of employers automatically close on Federal Holidays.

    @Sarah Marie

    Can’t one at least attempt to be a non-shitty white person? That doesn’t mean pushing in where one is not wanted or not invited, nor assuming that one knows better from hearsay than others do from personal experience, of course.

    @Scott Morizot

    Growing up Jewish mostly in communities where there were few if any other Jews, I never minded explaining what Jewish holidays meant or how they were celebrated when asked in a non-hostile way. I still don’t as an adult, although living in a metropolitan area, not many who I meet now are that unaware.

    I agree with @Foxessa that one should be able to celebrate with others when invited.

    Nice as making Juneteenth an official national holiday is, it is a very low cost symbolic gesture that does little to ease the burdens our society currently places on POC, and particularly blacks. Some actual policy changes would be good, like passing the HR 1/SB 1 voting rights and access legislation currently pending but not expected to pass, just to choose a single example. Sensible policing reforms would be helpful also. And many other things.

  21. “Can’t one at least attempt to be a non-shitty white person? That doesn’t mean pushing in where one is not wanted or not invited, nor assuming that one knows better from hearsay than others do from personal experience, of course.”

    I don’t know. I’d like to think I’m not, of course, but offense is in the eye of the beholder and no matter how much I may not want to, I could certainly offend anyway just by my shitty white cluelessness. At any rate, nobody’s inviting me to a Juneteenth party this year and as far as I know none of my African-American friends are throwing one, so it’s not coming up.

    These days it’s so ridiculously easy to offend someone and it becomes huge news. I’d rather err on the side of caution and respectfulness than inadvertently stomp on toes.

  22. “Can’t one at least attempt to be a non-shitty white person? That doesn’t mean pushing in where one is not wanted or not invited, nor assuming that one knows better from hearsay than others do from personal experience, of course.”

    Well certainly, but my point is that whiteness and shittiness aren’t necessarily one in the same, no matter what Robin DiAngelo says.

    Quick Note: I am a lefter than left African American woman who isn’t entirely sold on the idea that all whites everywhere are inherently shitty.
    Don’t know about anyone else’s book, but in mine, you actually have to do or say something shitty to get punted into that particular box.

    Can a white person be unintentionally shitty?

    Absolutely, and a lot of that has to do with having been cultivated in a society that was built almost exclusively for your freedom and prosperity.

    Thing is, any non-black person has the potential to be shitty, because POC are only homogenous in that we seem to be on one particular group’s shit list.

    Many Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Middle Easterners, Pacific Islanders and other POC have no problem dropping an N-bomb when it comes right down to it.

    Can one be shitty in the act of trying not to be shitty? Absolutely, especially when they assume that the best way to get in good with black folks is to dissolve into a gooey pile of self-flagellation in hopes that the black folks in the room will reassure you that you’re not one of * those * white folks.

    Just like expecting black folks to educate you, making them responsible for your feelings and putting it on them to absolve you is just as offensive, entitled and clownshoe as the first.

    Most black folks I know, myself included, don’t need white folks to produce their stamped woke badges upon entry.

    For the most part, we just want you to act like you’ve got “home trainin.”

    And branding yourself as an irredeemable foot stomper is not how you avoid stepping on foet. All you need to do is…well…not step on feet.

    Just my .02

  23. As a white person I celebrate Juneteenth by making a donation to my local Black Lives Matter chapter. And continuing my education as well.

  24. I grew up in Galveston so this white guy has been around it for a while and I couldn’t be happier with all this. Back in the day, the long lost time of the late 80’s, it was kinda like memorial day. Usually church in the morning with party and picnic in the afternoon.

  25. It’s apparently a thing in some RW circles that the Emancipation Proclamation never freed any slaves – as opposed to letters of manumission, which were issued by many stated before and during the Confederacy. (There were slaves that bought their freedom and masters that freed their slaves, often in their wills.)

    And that’s true – IIRC, people didn’t get a “you are free” card. What happened was that, by the terms of the Proclamation, EVERY SLAVE in rebel territory was immediately freed, but those terms had to be enforced by a bunch of guys in blue showing up with Springfield rifles and a few Parrott guns.

  26. My perspective as a non-Black person is that I will observe Juneteenth, but not necessarily celebrate it. I will observe and applaud someone’s liberation, and take the opportunity to learn more. And I will observe how others celebrate their liberation by being free of the expectations and policing they normally labor under.

    (The last thing I want to do is to use it as an excuse to party like Cinco de Mayo and St.Patrick’s Day are).

  27. Zach Rushing’s thoughts on ‘Black History Month’ seem equally appropriate for this new holiday.

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