When Martin Luther King Day was made a federal holiday in 1983, it was quite the controversy. When Juneteenth was made a federal holiday, there was almost no discussion. Whether that’s a sign of the change in American attitude toward recognition of slavery and the historic discrimination against black people or something else is unclear, but the lack of discussion raises a question. How do we celebrate Juneteenth?
It marks the day in 1865 — June 19 — when some of the last enslaved people in the United States, in Texas, learned that they had been freed, roughly two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.
My mother recalls going to large Juneteenth celebrations as a child in the 1950s, where some men would play baseball and others would play guitars and harps, where women would arrive with their own picnic spreads of fried chicken and fresh baked rolls and her great-uncle would barbecue a goat.
By the time I came along, those celebrations had died down. We remembered and marked the day, but without much celebration.
Were Charles Blow’s memories of Juneteenth common to others? Beats me, and it’s not clear whether he knows either. But then, he’s a black man and I’m not. Does that matter? Does that change the way he celebrates the day?
Last year, in the wake of the previous summer of protests after the murder of George Floyd, Juneteenth was made a federal holiday, and I must say that evoked in me a sense of pride that a day about Black history would be honored, but also trepidation that the day would lose some of its cultural potency and succumb to commercialization.
Maybe that is, on some level, inevitable with federal holidays. Sure enough, this year stores sold all kinds of Juneteenth tchotchkes.* Seeing them, my mother scoffed, “Don’t make it ghetto; keep it sacred.” The trinket that really stuck in my craw was a Juneteenth tiara with metallic tinsel at Walmart.
To most of us, a federal holiday is a paid day off and a barbecue. And since we’re having a party, there are people happy to sell us the accouterments that will make it fabulous. Does that mean Blow is right to fear the commercialization of Juneteenth? Of course. How much remembering do you do on Memorial Day between bites of burgers and sips of suds?
Judging by the comments I’ve seen online and the conversations I’ve had recently with other Black people, I’m far from the only person worried about the commercialization and degradation of the day as it scales up to a federal holiday. But upon further reflection, I think that is the wrong way to think about it. We have to think less about what making the day a federal holiday should compel and more about what it allows, centering Black people as we do so.
Notwithstanding his tendency to seize upon the lastest in fashionable words, “centering” in this instance, what does this mean? What would he have us white folks do on this new-to-us holiday?
Some people weren’t able to celebrate Juneteenth on the day because they couldn’t afford to take off work. (I often took the day off, out of deference and tradition, but it, of course, cost me a vacation day.) Now Black people as well as everyone else should be able to get the day off as a paid holiday — and revel in it.
So are we to revel in the significance of the day or in the fact that it’s another day off?
They can also use the day to educate themselves. Last year, on the verge of Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday, a little more than a quarter of Americans knew nothing at all about it and another third knew “a little bit,” according to Gallup. This year, the percentage who know nothing about the holiday has fallen to 11 percent and the percentage who know a little has ticked down to 29 percent.
This presents the curious problem arising from the absence of discussion about the day, about making Juneteenth a national holiday, where it would become common knowledge why we are, and we should, do so. Had this happened, the percentage of people who were “educated” about how the slaves of Galveston took two years to learn of the Emancipation Proclamation and that they were free would have been much greater.
Of course, this hasn’t done a lot for Columbus Day of late, which is the federal holiday no matter what anybody else wants to call it. Or Thanksgiving, for that matter. While we throw a big meal to celebrate Thanksgiving, do we have any common way we celebrate Columbus Day? Do we “center” Columbus, or Italians, or just take a day off without giving much thought to why?
There is no national practice to celebrate Juneteenth. Should it be a happy occasion, marked by parades and picnics, or a solemn occasion marked by the memory of our original sin and its legacy? Is it different for black people than for others?
Sure, many will squander the day. That happens with every federal holiday. Sadly, many people now see Memorial Day more as a time to cook out rather than to mourn. But the day also allows space to reflect and honor those who fell in battle.
We must look at Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday in the same way: to focus attention, but also to allow space.
Well, that doesn’t offer any insight. Focus attention, but allow space? What is that supposed to mean? I, for one, would like to celebrate Juneteenth right. But I don’t really know how, and it looks like nobody else does either.
*As a Jew, I hereby authorize Charles Blow to culturally appropriate the Yiddish word “tchotchkes.”