Op-Ed: Everyone Should Acknowledge Juneteenth — But Don't Celebrate It Unless You're Black

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 

Some people still don’t know what Juneteenth is. If you’re one of those people, here’s the quick version: It’s the longest recognized celebration of the end of slavery. On June 19th 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation “freed” the slaves, Major General Gordon Granger and his Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas and told those still enslaved that they were free. By the early 1900s, the holiday got its name, with Black communities around the country celebrating what we consider our independence day. And after everything Black people have been through in the less than two hundred years since we were freed, Juneteenth never feels less relevant to celebrate. But it feels especially poignant in the last seven years.

Juneteenth has always been a quiet holiday celebrated around the country with barbecues, parades and rodeos. Red drinks, such as strawberry soda are popular, as is barbeque. The red drinks are seen as a symbol of the perseverance of Black people, as well as the blood shed by Black Americans. Texas, which was the last state to end slavery, was the first state to make Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980. Since then, 47 states, plus the District of Columbia also commemorate the holiday in some way.

This week, the U.S. Senate passed a bill to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Yesterday, the bill passed in the House, and just today, President Biden signed it into law. All of this is progress, for sure, but I have some concerns about making Juneteenth a federal holiday.

As much as I want widespread recognition for Juneteenth as a holiday, I worry that people will take the reason for celebration and dilute it the way they’ve done with Martin Luther King Jr. Day. What was started as a day to honor a great leader has turned into yet another commercial three day weekend. Corporations have turned the day celebrating one of the foremost leaders of the Civil Rights Movement into a sales holiday. No one should be able to buy a new couch for 3% off to celebrate the birth of a man who was murdered for his beliefs. And yet, that’s where we’re at. And if Juneteenth eventually becomes a federal holiday, it’s only a matter of time before I’m getting emails from Old Navy with coupon codes for the big sale.

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Juneteenth is really a holiday for Black Americans. Yes, people of all ethnicities should acknowledge the day, but it’s not a holiday for them to openly celebrate. And I know that if we turn it into a federal holiday, somehow it will also become about white people. Because that’s what always happens. There shouldn’t be white people holding their own Juneteenth celebrations. Black people should be allowed to decide if white people can celebrate with them. You want to celebrate on your own? Donate to a Black organization. Or pay reparations to Black people directly. I know a lot of people will be mad at me for saying this, but it isn’t a decision I came to lightly.

I think (I hope) that the summer of 2020 was eye-opening for some white people about just how badly Black people are treated in this country. Even though we’ve been trying to tell people for a long time what’s up. I still don’t know why the video of George Floyd being choked to death on camera made people pay attention more than when they saw the same thing happen to Eric Garner six years earlier. What was it about the repetition of “I can’t breathe” that resonated more this time? Why were more people willing to burn their cities down this time than when Ferguson burned for Michael Brown? This may sound like a petty question, but as a Black woman who mourns every time one of my people is killed by police, I have the right to wonder.

The world coming together to fight after one Black man was murdered, but not extending the same outrage every time it happens makes you wonder about the motivation behind it. Why aren’t all Black people looked at with the same regard? We’ve been begging people to see our humanity since before Juneteenth was even a thing. And some people may believe that Juneteenth is enough to shut us up and we should be grateful. I’m sorry, but I have to call bullshit on that. Juneteenth, just like Black Lives Matter, is something we created because no one else would.

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I think that there’s a lot of similarities between Juneteenth and the Black Lives Matter movement. While Juneteenth is more of a celebration of our “independence,” it’s a testament to how we persevered as a people through one of the most horrific times in our history. Black Lives Matter shows how even though we’ve gained this so-called independence, we’re still not seen as human. Even though it’s been over one hundred and fifty years, we still aren’t truly seen as equals. If we were actually free and independent as of 1865, then what’s happening to us now wouldn’t be commonplace. Every Black person would be seen as worthy of humanity instead of a chosen few.

Since enslaved Africans were brought to this country, everything about us has been picked through, with white people taking the parts that best served them and throwing everything else by the wayside. First our bodies were scrutinized by what would best serve those who held us captive. Then our skills were exploited. Even now, so much of our culture has become co-opted and turned into something mainstream. Our food has become gentrified (white people have really fucked up mac and cheese.) Many things that white people deem unacceptable on Black people, including our bodies, hair and clothes, are praised when they’re on white bodies. Even the way we speak has been stolen — if I have to see or hear one more white woman say “yas queen,” I will scream.

Black people need one day in this country that is ours and no one else’s. And it should absolutely be Juneteenth. Because it’s a holiday that is ours. We’re the ones who had been enslaved for hundreds of years. We shouldn’t have even had to be freed in the first place. White Americans can have the Fourth of July. Even the free Black Americans weren’t freed that day — they couldn’t be truly free while other Black people were still in bondage. Some people will argue that we already have a whole month, why do we need another day? And to that I will say that there aren’t enough months or days to fully make up for the way Black people are treated by this country. But allowing us to celebrate our holiday would be a good show of respect.

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