I spent a lot of time this weekend contemplating “Juneteenth,” our newest federal holiday.
I first heard of it in 1985, when a college football teammate from Texas chastised a group of us for being unaware of the celebration. He explained the history of it to us. As a boy from Indiana, I understood his appreciation for Texas history but didn’t think it applied to me or my family.
I never celebrated Juneteenth. I never gave it much thought. I’ve lived in Indiana, South Carolina, Michigan, Missouri, Kansas, California, and Tennessee. No one in any of those states ever invited me to a Juneteenth party.
I suspect most people don’t fully comprehend or get Juneteenth. It’s a national holiday because of the death of George Floyd, not because our political leaders had a sincere interest in celebrating the emancipation of slaves in Texas or across the South.
This weekend, the New York Times ran an op-ed from Casey Gerald, an author and a native of Texas. Here are his opening lines:
“I won’t pretend Juneteenth has always meant a lot to me.
“I was born in Texas, as were my parents and most of my kin, all the way back to at least the 19th century, when some of them were enslaved. Still, for most of my life, the day was just another holiday marked on the community calendar — even if it was our day, a day for black Texans. Perhaps one sign that a thing belongs to you is that you take it for granted.
"The past few years have forced some stronger feelings to the surface.”
The “Summer of George Floyd” forced those stronger feelings to the surface.
A weekend article in the Washington Post spelled out the impetus for those stronger feelings, writing:
“During the summer of 2020, amid the racial-justice protests following the murder of George Floyd, millions of white Americans became aware of Juneteenth for the first time. Some companies announced they would give employees the day off on Juneteenth, and momentum grew to make it a national holiday. Last summer, the U.S. did just that, as President Biden signed a bipartisan bill into law on June 17.”
David Kaufman, writing in the New York Post, agreed with the Washington Post assessment:
“At a time when there is so much rewriting of American history, Juneteenth proves why history should be kept intact.
“Officially declared a national holiday by Congress last year in the wake of George Floyd’s 2020 murder, the day marks the emancipation of black slaves by President Abraham Lincoln in January 1863. As we prepare to celebrate it for the first time as a nation on Monday, it feels as important as the Fourth of July.”
Juneteenth’s connection to the George Floyd riots undermines the holiday’s ability to unify Americans. A lack of unifying messaging undermines the success and purpose of a national holiday.
What’s the purpose of Juneteenth?
Opal Lee, known as the “grandmother of Juneteenth,” offered this explanation:
“Juneteenth asks Americans to recognize that our nation’s principles are neither grossly hypocritical nor naively aspirational. We have inherited lofty yet practical ideals, and it falls to us to implement them as best we can.
“In 1865, that meant fighting attempts to reimpose slavery through violence. In 2022, it means opposing new forms of violence, whether it is violence that comes from within a community or violence perpetrated by the police.”
I like the first part of Lee’s explanation. It’s unifying and inspirational. But the second half falls flat. She analogizes slavery to violent police misconduct. The end of slavery freed 2.5 million black people. Slavery was codified into law and custom. The rare instances of illegal police violence are not backed by law or even custom. They’re aberrations.
Casey Gerald summarized his thoughts on Juneteenth this way:
“Let us grieve for our forebears and feel deep gratitude as we think of the enormous price our people paid so we could be free. Let us remember that despite the degradation of slavery, they lived fully human lives, too. They laughed. They loved. They dreamed. They ate sweet treats. Let us pray to them and say, this year and always: Thank you.”
Gerald’s definition leaves out the price paid by the hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers whose enormous price included the sacrifice of their lives. Gerald wants a black national holiday, not a unifying one.
My point is, as black people, we can’t fully explain or justify the Juneteenth holiday. Most black people did not care until George Floyd died. The black female mayor of New Orleans, LaToya Cantrell, best represents our confusion.
Over the weekend, she unveiled a monument she had erected at Lafayette Square in celebration of Juneteenth. The monument is an afro pick with a clenched fist. She said the sculpture represents the freedoms we’ve gained. New Orleans’ next sculpture will be of a durag and a can of Murray’s hair grease.
Let me take a crack at defining Juneteenth.
American black people did a lot of celebrating in 1865.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9 of that year, ending the Civil War and kicking off the official death of slavery.
Twenty-two days later, more than 10,000 freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, held a parade honoring deceased Union soldiers. The event is credited with starting the Memorial Day tradition.
In June 1865, Union Army General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and enforced Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Black Texans adopted June 19th as a day to celebrate their freedom.
In early December, the United States ratified the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery.
The year 1865 is as important to American history as 1776. America was reborn, reimagined, and resurrected from the dead. The year marks black Americans’ central role in this country’s march toward freedom and exceptionalism. The African-American journey has been America’s north star, its moral compass.
The fact that Juneteenth is such a divisive and polarizing issue speaks to how far this nation and its citizens have strayed from our shared moral struggle, purpose, and values.
I wish we could rebrand Juneteenth as 1865 Day. We could spend the day honoring the people who sacrificed everything for America to experience a rebirth. Right now, it’s a celebration of George Floyd. I feel sorry for George Floyd. I have no interest in celebrating him.