Commentary

Growing up in Five Points in Denver, we celebrated Juneteenth with soul food and soul music. We ate sweet potato pie and watched the parade go by — drill team fly as hell and drum line on point. Everybody Black was there and everybody there was Black. 

I loved the holiday so much that years later I got married on Juneteenth weekend, just to make the holiday even more special to my family.

Honestly, as a kid, I didn’t even know what the holiday was about. I just knew it was the day when I got to dream of being one of the sparkle-clad Black girls stepping and hollering in the parade and lusting after the beautiful hand-sewn dolls at the pop-up Black vendors market. The dolls had skin made from black cloth and big poofy dresses in African patterns.

I knew that it was the only parade that started and stopped in my own neighborhood — the historically Black neighborhood in Denver.

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Eventually I learned what Juneteenth actually celebrated — the day in 1865 (more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation) that Union soldiers forced enslavers in Galveston, Texas, to comply with federal orders and free enslaved Black people. I learned too that most non-Black people had never even heard of it.

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That was unsurprising at the time. Like kente cloth, cornrows and chitlins, it joined a long list of things that non-Black folk didn’t know about us.

And I didn’t mind one bit. 

Because like double Dutch, step and laid edges, Juneteenth was ours. 

It was a time (and usually at a place) where we got to be as Black as we wanted. That is to say, we didn’t have to explain our culture to anyone or “act right,” as neighborhood aunties and nervous moms would say whenever us kids were out among mixed company and risked earning wary or disapproving looks from non-Black people by being too loud, too wild, too Black. 

So, no, I didn’t mind even a little bit that nobody knew about Juneteenth. 

Imagine my surprise, then, when, this year, possibly for the first time in my life, I heard a non-Black acquaintance utter the word “Juneteenth.” 

I know I expressed visible surprise, because she stuttered and explained that she’d only learned about the holiday the previous summer during the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. 

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She wasn’t the only one to learn about Juneteenth last year. 

The holiday came just three weeks after Floyd’s murder, and as a holiday celebrating the (long-delayed) emancipation of enslaved Black Americans, Juneteenth was taken up as a day to highlight the systemic racism in the U.S. that is a legacy of slavery. 

The Juneteenth celebrations last year were mixed with protests. Alongside the drill team, activists passed out education flyers about racial equity and systemic racism. 

And like at the Seattle protests, the crowds at last summer’s Juneteenth celebrations included people of various racial backgrounds. 

More people celebrating a holiday I love? What’s not to love, right?

Except I didn’t love it. Hearing my non-Black friend talk about Juneteenth as a matter of course, hearing it pop up in other conversations with non-Black people, seeing it appear in news articles (most of them titled, “What is Juneteenth?”) and magazines … I felt like I should be thrilled. Instead, I felt uneasy. 

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I couldn’t quite place why until I took my 1-year-old to a friend’s party. 

After the party, my baby and I walked along the sidewalk back to our car. If you’ve ever tried to take a walk with a 1-year-old, you know that means they stop every few seconds to pick up rocks, point at flowers, closely examine a dead leaf … 

My baby is particularly fond of rocks, so when they spotted a yard full of rocks, they stopped and began to pick up little rocks from the patch on the sidewalk to proudly show me. 

The home’s owner came out and eyed us suspiciously. I waved a hello and smiled to ease their concern, pointing their attention to my curious baby. They remained stone-faced and watched us carefully and with disapproval.

Uncomfortable and frankly scared, I gathered up my child, attempted to return the couple of rocks to their original lot and hurried away. Now, of course, I’m disappointed in my reaction. 

I’m all too familiar with the negative ways that society views Black women, Black men and even Black children. It has been amply documented that even when they are as young as my child, Black kids are perceived as more grown-up, as manipulative, and sometimes as threats. Because of these racist perceptions, Black parents often end up policing their own children in order to protect them. 

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In public we tell them not to play too loudly, not to wander too close to other people, not to play with anything that could resemble a weapon, basically not to be a kid — free and curious. 

After that moment with the homeowner, I recalled all the ways just that day that I had policed myself in similar ways. 

The entire time at the party, my mind was busy noting the music that was playing (was it too loud, too angry, too vulgar, too Black for the neighbors?), keeping my baby from wandering too close to other people’s yards. 

This constant calculus is such a normal part of my day that I barely even noticed I was doing it. As a Black woman, this assessing and self-policing to avoid scaring or drawing racist attention from non-Black people has been so much a part of my life that it is automatic now, just background noise to my daily life. 

Now as a Black mother of a Black and Latinx child, I hate the ways that I do this to my child, too. I also know that if the world doesn’t already see my child as a threat, they will soon. Tamir Rice was only 12 years old. Adam Toledo was 13. Aiyana Stanley-Jones was 7. 

My child will probably develop this extra awareness around non-Black people before they hit double-digits.

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I know I did. 

That’s why I loved Juneteenth so much growing up.

It was a celebration in the streets of my neighborhood, surrounded by my community, and I didn’t have to think about how non-Black people might see me and my friends and family. 

I didn’t have to worry that the Black tradition of step, with all of its stomping and hollerin’, might be viewed as aggressive by non-Black people who don’t know what it is. 

I could run wild in the park with friends and dance in the parade crowd without being cognizant of racist stereotypes my behavior might invoke. I could linger on the sidewalk and not worry that someone might think I was casing their property. 

Juneteenth was one of the few times of the year I didn’t have to think about the uncomprehending gaze of non-Black people.

Now that President Joe Biden has signed a bill that makes Juneteenth an official federal holiday, I am thrilled that we finally have a federally recognized holiday that acknowledges this country’s history of slavery and systemic racism. 

Part of me is hopeful that Juneteenth will inspire non-Black people to learn more about Black culture and examine their own anti-Black biases before they join the party. Another part of me fears our holiday will forever be changed from a loud, carefree and Black-as-hell party in the streets to another place where we have to consider the non-Black gaze or teach others how not to hate us or patiently guide them on their journey toward undoing anti-Black racism. 

Reporting a recent story about how Washington residents are celebrating Juneteenth this year, I learned that there are people out there who are approaching the holiday with care — deferring to Black consultants and respecting that sometimes people just want to party and not have to teach. But I also saw the ways some are “toning down” their celebrations to make them more palatable for non-Black participants or are gearing up to push back and preserve the holiday’s significance for Black communities. 

It’s true that Black history is American history. So, here’s hoping Juneteenth can become a holiday that we observe as a country, a holiday to reckon with our past, but also a holiday where Black folk get a dang break.