On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, making Juneteenth a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Juneteenth has been observed in Texas where it originates for more than 150 years. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves held in Confederate territory on January 1, 1863. It wouldn’t be until June 19, 1865, that the last remaining slaves held in US territories were freed when then-President Andrew Johnson sent General Gordon Granger to Texas to make known the abolition of the practice and free the remaining slaves held in bondage. The ensuing celebration became known locally as Juneteenth or Jubilee Day and is observed every June 19th.
My initial response to this new holiday was skepticism. Any movement that popular culture champions of late seems fraught with an ulterior motive. Implementing this two days before its celebration seemed somewhat like pandering and not giving ample time for reflection and preparation. That was the accusation leveled at Donald Trump in the Fall of 2020 when Juneteenth was included in his campaign Platinum Plan. What’s more, any movement tied to post-modernist philosophies like Critical Race Theory that seek to divide and malign entire populations automatically elicits skepticism. These movements may only be relative in themes and timing, but an analysis of the history of its author, Congresswoman Shiela Jackson Lee – (D), only deepened my suspicion.
Last year around the death of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests I observed an interaction that begins to explain my skepticism of any modern race-centric movement. A family member made a general social media post that was reminiscent of many posts you may have read at the time. They sought to portray sympathy and general ignorance of other’s experiences and made a heartfelt apology to anyone who may have been on the receiving end of systemic injustice. For this, a colleague of my family member lambasted them for their disingenuous apology and proceeded to explain to them how they are to apologize utilizing neo-Marxist tropes like “do your research”, “do your homework”, or “do the work.”
It was in observing this interaction that I began to understand that these movements were not about reconciliation, but rather about control. “Apologize, but apologize how I say you should.” Also, “I’m not going to give you specifics of how you should apologize, you need to do your homework so that you can find out for yourself how you should apologize.” This is an unending dialogue that seeks to keep one half of the equation in perpetual submission to the other. And it is this sort of passive-aggressive voice that I have come to expect in any dialogue on race in modern discourse.
With President Joe Biden’s ink still wet on the paper last week, proponents of Juneteenth seized on the opportunity to levy a host of new demands that they insist the moment requires. Singer Macy Gray penned an op-ed in MarketWatch to not only repaint the American flag with skin tones but to adopt two additional stars and bestow statehood upon Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. America is not and should never be boiled down to skin tones. This was a commercial for a Democrat pet project to solidify majorities in power and had nothing to do with celebrating the end of slavery in the United States. When put alongside campaigns like the 1619 Project or kneeling for the national anthem, the conversation began to look more like reframing history than celebrating a momentous occasion.
Within two days of elevating Juneteenth to national holiday status, the government had closed its doors in observance of the holiday, and corporations unleashed their collective campaigns as the wellspring of social justice. One such corporation, IKEA, caught backlash for replacing their famed cafeteria meatball dish with traditional Juneteenth fares, such as fried chicken and collard greens. An expected collective gasp can be heard from the public in response. That was certainly the response of this author. Upon further scrutiny, I am left questioning why this is considered insensitive or offensive? These are, after all, traditional southern dishes. They’re also some of those most often consumed in observance of Juneteenth. Partaking in the cuisine of celebrated culture is as American as apple pie. See St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco De Mayo, July 4th, Oktoberfest, Thanksgiving, etc. If we are to observe Juneteenth as a nation, then food is naturally going to be an important part of that.
Despite my skepticism, the idea of Juneteenth elicits a sense of unity. Upon further consideration, a more contemplative response was to ask “what took so long?” I can think of no national celebration of the end of slavery that we’ve observed collectively in my lifetime. When distilled down to basic representations, freedom is the epitome of what the United States is and has represented for people the world over. It’s not as though we succeeded on the first try and everything thereafter has been perfection. We’re always a work in progress. Moving forward, if Juneteenth is to be a national celebration in pursuit of a more perfect union, it must be given the time and reflection that it deserves. We must shake off impure motives and movements and coalesce around the freedom that unites us all. It must be inclusive and race-based litmus tests for the celebration can have no seat at the table. Juneteenth is worth celebrating. Next year, let’s do better.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” – Thomas Jefferson
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