In 2020, Juneteenth fell three weeks after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers sparked protests nationwide.
Suddenly, a holiday usually celebrated primarily in Black communities marking the day in 1865 when slaves in Galveston, Texas, finally learned two years after the Emancipation Proclamation that they were free spiked in popularity in Google search trend data.
“It was a questioning,” said LaNesha DeBardelaben, president and CEO of the Northwest African American Museum, which organized a nine-day Juneteenth celebration this year. “We had to question what does freedom truly mean, and are we really free? Now it’s in front of everybody and it’s on everybody’s minds.”
This year, with Gov. Jay Inslee announcing that Juneteenth will become an official state holiday starting in 2022, and the President Joe Biden signing a bill to make Juneteenth an official federal holiday, interest in Juneteenth has exploded.
The George Floyd protests sparked a burst of interest in Juneteenth, but people like the late DeCharlene Williams, an institution in Seattle’s Black Central District community, laid the foundations. Williams’ efforts to make Juneteenth a celebration of Black culture, history and business in Seattle primed Washington for the recent surge of interest in the holiday. This year, in the Seattle area, in addition to Saturday’s big Juneteenth march in the Central District and the It Takes a Village — AMSA Juneteenth event in Othello, some new Juneteenth events have sprung up.
Kimberly Kapustein says Juneteenth has always been an important way to celebrate her Black American heritage. This year, Kapustein, the president of the Issaquah Highlands Council, is part of a committee organizing the Issaquah Highlands’ first ever communitywide Juneteenth celebration. The goal, she said, is to make sure people know what Juneteenth is about. Because it’s the only holiday that directly addresses the history of slavery in the United States, Juneteenth is unique.
“[Slavery] is a part of American history. We should own it but celebrate what came after and never forget,” Kapustein said. “[Juneteenth] is a way to come together and learn from it.”
But as the United States reckons with modern racist ideas and inequality that are the legacy of slavery, and the holiday grows in popularity beyond Black communities, will the meaning of Juneteenth be changed by its growing popularity? How should non-Black people observe the holiday?
“[Juneteenth] means free, singing, joy, dancing, just enjoying ourselves with no drama,” said Fawn Sterling, Executive Director of the Washington Diamonds Drill Team, which performs annually at Seattle-area Juneteenth events.
Last year, after the summer protests, Sterling said, Juneteenth was different. There were more people, a more diverse crowd and a focus on education. People were handing out flyers about Juneteenth and about racial equity, she said. Sterling welcomed the change.
“If this awareness happened a long time ago, people would be a lot more together,” she said.
Kapustein says people in her community seem mostly disappointed that they had never learned about Juneteenth before last year.
“It’s almost like they feel slighted,” Kapustein said.
To be mindful of families’ private celebrations, the council’s organizing committee is deliberately holding the community event the day before Juneteenth.
While the communitywide event is an opportunity to share or learn about Black culture, the council understands that some Black community members might prefer to simply celebrate rather than educate, but they hope the event will appeal to everyone.
“I hope that our African American neighbors want to participate. I hope they’ll feel seen and supported and just an acknowledgment that we do care about your culture and your history,” said Lindsey Pinkston, the community program manager for the Issaquah Highlands Council. “We’re working on it. For those who don’t know [about Juneteenth], I hope they ask what it is about and learn. I hope they ask ‘why isn’t this taught in school?’”
“It is such an important part of American history that I want to make sure to bring it to our community to learn about the people whose ancestors lived through this,” said Pinkston.
So what’s a respectful way for non-Black observers and allies to celebrate a holiday that addresses the enslavement of Black Americans in the United States?
Pinkston sees Juneteenth as an opportunity to educate her own family about other cultures and racial inequality. Her whole family attended Friday’s Juneteenth event in Issaquah Highlands. On Juneteenth itself, they will watch “13th,” a documentary about race and mass incarceration in the United States.
“It’s not our celebration to have. We can celebrate that slavery ended, but as we celebrate it in my family, we’re celebrating that history has changed but it’s not where it needs to be,” Pinkston said. “I want to make sure my kids can identify systemic racism and not further it. I don’t want them to do anything out of ignorance.”
As a white woman growing up in an all-white community, Pinkston says she didn’t know anything about other cultures until she went to college.
“I didn’t want that for my kids,” she said. “I want this awareness to exist throughout the year, not just this one day.”
Ann Okwuwolu first began organizing the It Takes a Village — AMSA edition Juneteenth celebration nine years ago to create positive Black representation for herself and her daughter in her community. She says non-Black Juneteenth observers should “pay homage” to Black people and their enslaved ancestors by donating to Black organizations, holding fundraisers, and helping out as volunteers at Juneteenth events.
Jazmyn Scott, the program manager of LANGSTON, a Black arts and culture organization in Seattle, says education should be a focus for non-Black observers.
“White folks in particular and other non-Black folk really need to do the work to learn and understand the history of this country and how it has affected Black Americans from day one,” Scott said. “That needs to be a real part of how they acknowledge Juneteenth — education.”
Now that the holiday is better known throughout the country, Okwuwolu says she’s noticed greater enthusiasm among sponsors and vendors. “Thanks to 2020, I no longer have to be on the phone for 20-25 minutes just trying to explain to people what Juneteenth is,” she said.
But Okwuwolu worries that the greater number of events springing up will result in fewer people attending Juneteenth celebrations that have been around for years.
She says some organizations that refused her requests for them to attend her Juneteenth events in the past are now holding their own events — some of these are even scheduled for the same time as the It Takes A Village event.
“You’re saying you want to unite, but you’re not uniting, when you’ve had all the chance to do so,” she said.
Okwuwolu and Scott say Black communities may need to “gatekeep” to protect Juneteenth from becoming an excuse for people to “have a little celebration, have some hot dogs and some music and then they’re all done up with it until next year,” or being co-opted by big companies looking to show empty solidarity.
“I would hope that it doesn’t become something that’s watered down and the narrative being changed, kind of like Cinco de Mayo where people turn a holiday into an excuse to have a day off and get drunk” said Scott. “The important thing about Juneteenth in Seattle is about how the community comes together to grow as a community, to be together as a community.
“Those are things I would hate to see be lost as it’s more widely acknowledged.”