What, to America, is Juneteenth?
A longtime regional celebration in the Black community is suddenly a national holiday
A dance group from a local middle school was performing as I arrived with my wife and sons, and another group followed with an impressive routine to Ciara’s Rooted. An MC read “The Order,” a Juneteenth tradition.
That was the scene at the sparsely attended Juneteenth celebration at our local park on Saturday, and the sensation was at once jubilant and strange. We live in a diverse suburb outside New York City that is fluent in the lingo of “equity” and “allyship” but had never officially marked this occasion before.
It’s not that I’d never heard of Juneteenth. I think I first became aware of it in college as a regional Black community tradition, mainly in the Deep South, particularly Texas. It marked the day — June 19, 1865, long after the Emancipation Proclamation — when a large number of African Americans first learned that slavery had been abolished in their area.
For me, growing up as a Black kid in Washington, D.C., Juneteenth wasn’t on our radar. Never came up. And we were into Black community stuff. I went to D.C. public schools for elementary and middle school, where we learned all three verses of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” My dad pastored a church that came together with others annually for M.L.K. Day services (where we would sing those verses), and my mom started a line of afrocentric greeting cards that included a set for Kwanzaa. (I wrote a poem for each of the seven days.)
Given all that, it’s honestly a bit jarring to have Juneteenth suddenly in the mainstream — a bit like the photo last year of White Democratic lawmakers kneeling in the kente cloth scarves/stoles long favored among ministers in the Black church. Juneteenth went from being not a Black community observance, but a regional Black community observance, to a federal holiday at warp speed.
That means there aren’t many clearly defined traditions for celebrating Juneteenth in the mainstream. And there are a lot of uncomfortable questions. How is it different from M.L.K. Day? Is it an independence day somehow in parallel to July 4? Is it a problem to think of it as an independence day, when post-emancipation laws denied Black people access to full citizenship?
I don’t have answers to these and other questions, but I do believe that the mainstreaming of Juneteenth comes with certain tradeoffs. It must have a national meaning now, with a resonance for everyone. It should mean something in Anchorage, just as it means something in Atlanta.
As for how we can all reflect on it, here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
Data. What makes Juneteenth different is that its story is specifically about information. It took two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued for it to be proclaimed in Texas. Maybe we can use Juneteenth as a convenient mid-year point to look at data on the progress of underrepresented groups in society and the economy. By June, we should be able to gather data and surveys from the previous year and analyze them; it could become an annual moment to chart progress and consider continuing gaps.
Enforcement. Proclamations are not enough. Why did it matter that Union General Gordon Granger read “The Order” in Galveston that day? Because it took the presence of the Union Army to actually enforce the end of slavery in the Confederate states. That’s a reminder that it’s not enough for communities and companies to state that they’re going to do better with hiring diverse workforces or to commit to giving money to diverse causes. Leaders have to measure progress, and communities have to hold leaders accountable.