In the end, after decades of effort and advocacy, the U.S. House voted overwhelmingly last Wednesday to make Juneteenth the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. The bill was sent off to President Biden, who quickly signed it and, by Friday, Juneteenth was already a day off for many nationwide.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day that enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, finally learned they were no longer enslaved, two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and months before the 13th Amendment was ratified, formally ending slavery for most.
For generations, Juneteenth has been celebrated by African Americans in private and public gatherings, and after George Floyd’s murder last summer, interest grew. This year, a huge number of Juneteenth events are taking place in the Seattle area and nationwide.
The irony of Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday now is that we are deep in the midst of what some are calling a national “moral panic” around critical race theory. I wrote about the Trump administration’s efforts last October to ban racial-equity trainings and any mention of critical race theory, which, in a nutshell, is a way to examine systemic racism and the ways it shows up in our society today. Since then, while those federal rules have been rolled back by Biden’s administration, states’ efforts to pick up where Trump left off have accelerated.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis directed the state board of education to bar teaching on systemic racism, specifically saying teachers can no longer teach that “racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.” Further, it said, “Instruction may not utilize material from the 1619 Project.” Other GOP-led states are following suit.
According to media watchdog Media Matters for America, mentions of critical race theory have skyrocketed this spring on Fox News, and the network mentioned the term over 1,300 times in just over three months.
So in effect, while the country is moving one step forward in acknowledging its debt to the African Americans who built it, it’s taking two steps back in not allowing a complete accounting of the ways that systemic racism affects our past and present, such as racially discriminatory attacks on voting rights that Congress has not found a similar will to address.
I welcome any effort we make as a country to acknowledge and account for the impact of our country’s original sins and to create space for celebration for those who survived them.
Much as Indigenous Peoples’ Day created an opportunity to reflect on the genocide of Native Americans and recognize the work that remains, Juneteenth has similar potential for the broader community. But will it happen that way?
In addition to the attacks on education about systemic racism, the new Juneteenth holiday is in danger of falling victim to the pattern of co-option, colonization and commodification that has befallen other holidays.
For those of us who are not Black, we have an opportunity to choose a different way as we embrace this new holiday as a society. Most important, we should be doing our own work to read up on and heed the advice of Black people on how to approach the holiday.
For starters, we can make Juneteenth a “day on, not a day off” as many have tried to do for MLK Day. If you are not a person whose family has been directly harmed by slavery, the Juneteenth holiday can be a day for education, service and economic support for the Black community.
Do not try to co-opt or colonize Juneteenth. Support existing Juneteenth events led by Black people with your money and respectful presence, if you have been invited to participate.
And as Michael Harriott wrote on Friday in The Root, recognize that “Juneteenth is not yours: Do not infiltrate your capitalist customs into Juneteenth. There will be no mattress sales or special edition Crown Royal bottles. We don’t need a line of Hallmark Cards or 10 percent off collard greens. Don’t try to improve it, take it over or make it ‘more inclusive.’ In other words, don’t treat Juneteenth like you treat Black music, Black art or Black neighborhoods.”
My colleague, Crystal Paul, wrote a powerful reflection about her fear of losing what made the holiday so important to her.
“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,” Paul wrote. “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.”
Non-Black people can take initiative on our own to educate ourselves and do the work to unpack the ways racism shows up in ourselves and our communities. We can advocate for real, substantive policies that support racial justice, not celebrate progress that we have not truly achieved.