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As descendants of this nation’s most vile sin, Juneteenth has long been an inaugural moment of reflection, lamentation and celebration for the enduring plight of our ancestors. The day — which honors the final liberation of enslaved peoples in Galveston, Texas — is a storied recollection of resilience that calls us all forth to evermore acknowledge the history of structural racism and oppression we collectively shoulder. Now, our cultural commemoration, which dates back to the late 1800s, has officially been cemented into federal recognition as a national holiday. The gravity of this monumental stride is a solemn reminder for our nation to reckon with its tainted past and for our community to vault the unjust challenges that lie ahead.
“Great nations don’t ignore the most painful moments. They don’t ignore those moments in the past. They embrace them,” President Biden said in his address at the helm of our nation while officially signing the legislation into law on Thursday (June 17). “By making Juneteenth a federal holiday, all Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history — and celebrate progress and grapple with the distance we’ve come; the distance we have to travel.”
The history of Juneteenth begins two months after Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s surrender ended the Civil War when Union general Gordon Granger headed to Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. His arrival officially issued President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was signed over two years prior, into effect and pronounced the freedom of enslaved African-Americans. Indigenous to Galveston, Juneteenth originated as a tradition of fellowship, prayer and ancestral veneration. Families would gather at parks — honoring our interconnection with horticulture and nature — for community-style picnics featuring the infamous red soda water that symbolizes the bloodshed of those before us. As the Great Migration and other migratory shifts took place, these practices found themselves across the country and passed down for generations. Today’s festivities include rodeos, parades, barbecues and even massive festivals at the heart of big cities.
Ahead of this year’s historic commemoration, 47 states recognized the day with Texas being the first to do so in 1980, but only in Texas, New York, Virginia, and Washington have considered it as a paid holiday for state employees. For many, Juneteenth’s stature as a new national holiday appeared to be largely orchestrated by Congress, but the legislation was long-championed by 94-year-old activist Opal Lee. Hailed as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” the Marshall, Texas native’s proximity to the day’s physical origin and a childhood traumatic encounter with racism galvanized her to fight for its space on the national centerstage.
After moving into an all-white neighborhood when she was 9, just one week later on Juneteenth, a white mob raided and burned her family’s home. Much like the Tulsa Massacre that left Black Wall Street in ashes at the hands of white residents, the event was both ignored by local newspapers and lost in inaccurate revisionist storytelling. Later on, as an educator, Lee became disheartened by the day’s lack of formal acknowledgement in America’s academia. At the age of 89, in 2016, she began mobilizing to garner federal attention, launching a petition and a walking campaign from her Fort Worth, Texas home to Washington, D.C. in an effort to amass support.
“We have the obligation to address the atrocities that are happening to us even now. None of us are free until we are all free,” Lee said when she sat down with Diddy in an interview on REVOLT last year. The mogul used his platform to help Lee reach her goal of 100,000 signatures. The petition now boasts over 1.6 million signees as of late. “And we are not free as long as we have sex trafficking, as long as our educational system is not up to par, as long as there is homelessness, as long is there is job disparities. We are not free. And we take this means of making people aware of what needs to be done by celebrating Juneteenth.”
2020 was a year that glaringly laid bare the freedoms we have yet to conquer. We steered a burgeoning global movement against the moral corruption ingrained in the infrastructures of our law enforcement and greater carceral state. We faced the inequities of the healthcare system as a pandemic disproportionately ravished our communities. We navigated a contentious political arena pockmarked by surreptitious efforts to disenfranchise our most vulnerable populations. These flash points throughout last year have reawakened our duty to our community’s ascension to equality. But it is a burden we all too often encumber alone when our history is often relegated as a subsection or erased in toto.
A recently conducted Gallup survey reports that 62 percent of American adults have little to no knowledge of Juneteenth. Hispanic and white Americans are more likely to have no familiarity in comparison to the 69 percent of African Americans who have some or a lot of acquaintance to the historical observance. For non-Black Americans who will finally learn the liberation of enslaved peoples, it is important that they heed themselves from celebrating an independence that isn’t theirs to laud or diluting the reverence to “just another day off.” This is a pivotal moment for America to navigate allyship and solidarity that cannot be whitewashed in its newfound place in the national spotlight. The last “Black” holiday recognized on the federal level prior to Juneteenth was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day after his wife Coretta Scott King fervently worked to etch her husband’s indelible imprint on civil rights activism into America’s legacy. Over time, his life’s work found itself distorted and misconfigured under the rhetoric deployed at the federal level that depicted him as a martyr for the movement rather than a victim of an assassination at the tender age of 39 years old.
It is of even greater importance that, in this enlightenment, our country disrupts the narratives that end to chattel slavery was an end-all be-all measure to the oppression that looms over to African-American community’s economic, sociopolitical and educational spaces. In a rare glint of hope in a faulty justice system, Derek Chauvin was found guilty for the murder of George Floyd, while justice for Breonna Taylor and the endless Black lives languish. And while Juneteenth is at centerstage, the same lawmakers who unanimously passed the act in the Senate ensnare progressive measures in Washington’s political impasse. Most recently, politicians have decried the teachings of critical race theory — an academic framework that declares racism as social construct — to assert a race-blind curricula that would ultimately fail to educate the next generation of Americans on the historical context of Juneteenth itself.
This year, Juneteenth is, as it always has been, a spiritual pilgrimage to the places — from the sweltering heat of Galveston, Texas to the swamps of Florida — where our ancestors built the foundation of our country. But, most of all, it is a sounding alarm for America to lift its bar for equality higher than the standards of recognition. Juneteenth as a national holiday should be more than a symbolic gesture that America hopes to move in the right direction. From national obscurity to a federal holiday, it shows us that America can absolutely seize revolutionary progress if only it musters up the courage to face its own reflection.