I didn’t grow up with Juneteenth. As we know, the holiday originated in Texas and spread through other communities through migrants from Texas. In the place I grew up, Harrisburg, Pa., we didn’t celebrate Juneteenth.
I first heard about Juneteenth as an adult from friends who had lived in the South or closer to the places where Juneteenth has been traditionally celebrated. But when I heard about it, it certainly resonated with me. There are gatherings of African Americans all over the country that celebrate forms of autonomy, where things that might look like recreational activities, picnics, etc., in fact are assertions of autonomy in a world in which African American lives are devalued.
When I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, there were many black Americans who had never heard of Juneteenth. Part of the reason is that Juneteenth has been a celebration that occurred within certain black communities. The communities of white Americans that surrounded them often were not paying attention, and that is probably one of the major reasons why Juneteenth is unknown to most white Americans.
I’d be in favor of starting a conversation about making Juneteenth a national holiday. But to get Martin Luther King’s birthday to be a national holiday was a very long and complicated struggle that was resisted on the federal level and on the state level, and it’s still resented in some quarters. And secondly, I’d say that there are a number of reforms that have been proposed growing out of the killing of George Floyd that would be more protective of black lives and black aspirations, and those probably should come first.
But the reason why we should at least consider it is that we don’t have a celebration of emancipation. We have the Martin Luther King birthday, which is an incredibly important celebration of a particular time and of the person who, with many others, was part of the movement that helped eradicate Jim Crow and make America modern, in terms of race. The centuries of slavery in North America, the long struggle to abolish it, the dehumanization of human beings under that institution, and the push headed by both black and white Americans to come to grips with that problem don’t have a national commemoration. We commemorate Abraham Lincoln in various ways, but we don’t have a national commemoration of the triumph over slavery, which has to be one of the most important moments in American history. One should consider Juneteenth in that context. The best case to be made for Juneteenth would be as a commemoration of both the legacy of slavery and the success of the movement to abolish formal slavery in the United States.
Jeraul Mackey ’21
Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Ph.D. student; member of the W.E.B. Du Bois Graduate Society Steering Committee