Abraham Lincoln outlawed chattel slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Many slavers, especially those in the Deep South, chose to ignore the proclamation and refused to free their Black laborers. Two and a half years after the proclamation and following the end of the deadliest war on American soil, Union soldiers brought the news of freedom with them on horseback as they rode through the South. On June 19th, 1865, federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people were freed.
Juneteenth commemorates the day that these newly liberated Texans were informed of their freedom. The next year, people came together and celebrated with picnics, dances, and recitations. Since then, Black Texans and eventually, Black Americans widely, celebrate Juneteenth on June 19th each year to remind one another of the jubilee of freedom.
President Joe Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday in 2021, nationalizing the celebration for all Americans. Amidst a wave of changes to corporate and municipal calendars, it makes sense to ask how you should celebrate this newly minted federal holiday. Every American should understand the historical significance of Juneteenth. More importantly, everyone should know how to celebrate the day without being offensive or worse, ending up in a group chat. I have three tips that should keep you out of trouble this Juneteenth holiday.
#1 Stop. Look. Learn. Repeat.
Unfortunately, Juneteenth wasn’t in many of our school books. There are plenty of people who learn about it for the first time each year. That’s okay. What’s not okay is choosing ignorance. Rather than complaining about a new day of remembrance, open your mind to a new perspective. Take the time to learn about the circumstances surrounding the first Juneteenth celebration. One of the foremost aspects of Juneteenth is community. Check to see what is happening in your own community. (Resource: https://nmaahc.si.edu/juneteenth)
The period of Reconstruction immediately following the Civil War was a time of social, economic, and political progress for Black Americans. Juneteenth is a reminder of the part we can all play in creating the change we want. Reconstruction ended in a violent backlash that brought in Jim Crow and the racialized social order that lasted until the late 1960s and whose effects haunt us today. Use this Juneteenth holiday to determine your role in making sure we are heading in the right direction.
#2 Walk the Walk
So, you followed my first tip and read up on the holiday and now you’ve been inspired to go all out this year. We get it. You want to show solidarity with everyone celebrating Juneteenth. While I’m sure your colleagues will appreciate your desire to honor such a historic day and cause, I will save you the embarrassment of their reactions to your costume dashikis, stereotypical menu items, and cheap Juneteenth paperweights and bookends.
No one is expecting you to apologize for slavery. Instead, support your friends, colleagues, and fellow Americans by researching and supporting Black-owned businesses for your daily needs. Find a non-profit with a worthy cause. Buy from Black jewelers and designers, Black artists and writers. Black car salesmen and bakers. Black cobblers and dog groomers! Juneteenth is a great day to reassess the tangible ways you have supported social, economic, or political liberation for the Black community in the past year. Rather than dressing up and performing how “woke” you are for clout, make a real investment in the Black community by putting your money where your mouth is. Respect is earned through action, not flowery language.
#3 Tend your own garden
Everyone doesn’t need to give a company speech or go viral with a post on social media. Public speaking isn’t everyone’s thing. Instead, do the work in your own networks. If you’re a Black person celebrating, make sure that your family and friends know the significance of Juneteenth. Encourage them to participate in Juneteenth celebrations happening in your community. If you’re not Black, you should use your energy to correct misinformation and bad-faith arguments within your networks. I know it is not an easy ask. But neither was the back-breaking labor that was stolen from those eventually liberated on Juneteenth.
When you’re watching the news or discussing hot topics with your loved ones, nudge them to refrain from derogatory language. If you hear someone complaining about “another holiday for them”, gently correct them and tell them that actually, Juneteenth should be a celebration for all Americans. This country is guided by a constitution written in the spirit of democracy for all. Use Juneteenth as the starting point for your revised historical commentary for your not-so-progressive friends and family. You’ll get much farther by taking baby steps with them than apologizing for systemic racism to your Black friends.
If all else fails, keep calm and carry on! Juneteenth shouldn’t raise your hackles. It’s all about freedom. If you want to celebrate, no one is going to stop you from attending a public event. Just don’t show up in costume or with a fake accent or sob story. If you aren’t ready to celebrate, that’s okay too. Feel free to hang back until you do. Just do yourself a favor and learn about the day before you protest it.