"Juneteenth should be educational and reflective, but it should also be a celebration of community and family."

By Vanessa Wilkins
June 17, 2020
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Juneteenth is a holiday that has gone unacknowledged for centuries by mainstream society, but holds special significance in the African-American community.

On June 19, 1865, enslaved Black Americans in Galveston, Texas, were finally informed by Union soldiers that they were free. This “formal” announcement was made nearly two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, and months after the Civil War had largely ended. The commemoration of this mass emancipation is now known as the holiday Juneteenth.

The first few decades after the slaves in Texas were officially freed, Juneteenth was primarily celebrated by the descendants of those slaves, with word of the holiday spreading first throughout the South and then to the rest of the states as the freed slaves migrated to different parts of the country. In present day America, while still not recognized as a federal holiday, Juneteenth is celebrated in Black communities as a way to acknowledge the “freedoms” earned in the past as well as the continued advancement for a better future.

Photograph of African-American band at Emancipation Day celebration, June 19, 1900, held in "East Woods" on East 24th Street in Austin. Mrs. Grace Murray Stephenson kept a diary of the day's events, which she later sold to the San Francisco Chronicle, which wrote a full-page feature on it.
| Credit: Stephenson, Mrs. Charles (Grace Murray)/Austin History Center/Austin Public Library

Dr. Farah Griffin, professor and chair of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University, explains that for Black Americans, Juneteenth can be seen as a more historically relevant and accurate holiday to celebrate their independence than the nationally recognized Fourth of July holiday.

“Even though the Fourth of July has always been a holiday that Black Americans celebrated, they didn’t necessarily celebrate it as Independence Day, because our people were still enslaved,” notes Dr. Griffin.

Credit: Stephenson, Mrs. Charles (Grace Murray)/Austin History Center/Austin Public Library

This month, as Americans shed light on the injustices the Black community has endured due to systemic and institutional racism embedded in the country’s history, Juneteenth has become a major part of the conversation. In the past few weeks, numerous companies, including Google, Twitter, and Nike, have stated that Juneteenth will now be a company-recognized holiday, a fact which Dr. Griffin admits she has mixed feelings about.

“In all honesty, I’m ambivalent,” Dr. Griffin says of the recent surge in interest for celebrating Juneteenth.

While Dr. Griffin expresses genuine content about the revitalized interest in African-American history and culture, she also voices her concern with the “warp speed” in which the Juneteenth discussions are happening, and hopes that the holiday does not become commodified like other holidays in the country, lessening the meaning and impact of this significant date for the Black community.

Community members take part in a Black Lives Matter protest, organized by Black Men Rising, in Camden, NJ on June 13, 2020.
| Credit: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“It’s a great thing that more people are aware of and wish to celebrate Juneteenth, but I know what holidays become in the United States,” says Dr. Griffin. “I know how they become commercialized and watered down and move from their true meaning, [which is why] I have ambivalence about it.”

Dr. Griffin notes that there is no specific way of celebrating Juneteenth. In certain regions in the northern U.S. such as New England, people may focus their celebrations on oratory, while in other regions, like Texas and Louisiana, cookouts and barbecues may be the form of celebration that takes place.

As Americans debate whether Juneteenth should be celebrated as a leisure holiday or a day of reflection and service, the happy medium to Dr. Griffin is a little bit of both.

“I think Juneteenth should be educational and reflective, but it should also be a celebration of community and family,” she says. “A celebration of our families and our communities and ourselves — that’s what I hope Juneteenth will become.”

To combat the “superficial flattening” of the holiday that Dr. Griffin is concerned about, she invokes a poignant quote from Toni Morrison: “The function of freedom is to free someone else.”

For those who wish to celebrate Juneteenth this year and many years ahead, here are ways to make your day off more meaningful.

Learn more about African-American history and culture, and share your resources with friends and family.

Whether it’s watching a movie or series about the Black experience, reading a book, or visiting a museum or art gallery, take part of this day to try and learn something new about Black culture and the history behind it.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) released a brand-new, online portal called “Talking About Race” that discusses race, racism, and racial identity. The portal provides resources for information and guided discussions, as well as videos, specific questions, and even role-playing exercises to help people “become more comfortable about engaging in honest dialogue and self-reflection.”

Volunteer at a voter registration organization.

Decades after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were passed into law, African Americans still face disproportionate inequality when it comes to voting in the U.S.

Invest in Black lives.

Find a way to uplift a Black-led organization that resonates with you. Whether it’s supporting a Black-owned business or setting up a recurring donation to a Black-led organization of your choice, you can help bridge the inequality gap by supporting the Black community with your dollars and time.