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.