On Wednesday, the House followed the Senate in passing a bill to make Juneteenth a national holiday. President Biden signed it into law Thursday afternoon. After a century and a half, the oldest celebration of Black emancipation is now a federal holiday.
Juneteenth is an occasion we should all commemorate, but what are the risks of taking the celebration of Black freedom mainstream? As more organizations and communities across the nation recognize Juneteenth, there may be some unintended consequences that make it harder for people to recognize the significance of the occasion.
The long effort to make Juneteenth a federally recognized holiday nearly became a reality in 2020 with momentum from historic protests for racial justice. A single lawmaker, Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, opposed the effort, and other GOP officials moved on to other matters.
Even though Congress failed to make Juneteenth a national holiday last year, the holiday became more popularly recognized, and other organizations committed to recognizing the event. Just a few weeks ago my employer, Boston University, announced that all offices would be closed for Juneteenth. Last July, Governor Charlie Baker signed legislation making Juneteenth a state holiday.
Juneteenth is a portmanteau of the words June and 19. It recognizes the day in 1865 when enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, first learned of their freedom. It stands as the oldest celebration of Black emancipation in the country.
Commemorating Juneteenth is certainly appropriate. It marks the end of race-based chattel slavery, a massive economic system that enriched white slaveholders at the expense of Black laborers; and a system from which people across the country, not just the South, benefited.
It also took the nation’s bloodiest war, the Civil War, to finally abolish slavery. It is, therefore, appropriate to annually acknowledge one of the most important events in US history.
But there are risks in taking what has historically been an event celebrated almost exclusively in Black communities to a broader public of 330 million people.
Juneteenth is specifically a celebration of Black emancipation. Race-based chattel slavery intentionally ensnared people of African descent and labeled them as property. While every racial and ethnic group has its own story of hardship and oppression, Juneteenth explicitly deals with Black experiences due to slavery and the joy earned through hard-won battles.
As people other than Black Americans commemorate Juneteenth, it may lose some of its specific focus on Black people in exchange for a colorblind story of American triumph. Juneteenth was made possible in large part because of the courage and resilience of Black people who persistently fought for their liberation. Sojourner Truth, Anna Murray Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and other heroes of American Black freedom struggle should occupy a central place in Juneteenth celebrations.
In the clamor to show that Juneteenth is important to all people, Black people should maintain their central place in the story.
As more people recognize Juneteenth, there is also a risk that complicated historical events such as slavery, the Civil War, and emancipation become flattened and superficial in the national memory.
Historians and other scholars have written thousands of books about the practice of slavery, the war that led to its demise, and myriad related topics. But few people will have the patience or desire to develop a nuanced understanding of such complicated events. It is easy to imagine a facile narrative that develops around Juneteenth in which people essentially tell themselves, “Slavery was bad. The ‘good guys’ won the Civil War. And now racism is over.” It would be a sacrilege to the memories of those who suffered to achieve freedom and the celebration of Juneteenth if people adopted a simplistic understanding of the history behind it.
In a related way, Juneteenth can become another talking point in the erroneous idea of American exceptionalism. The myths of popular memory tend to position the United States as a nation that has had its troubles and made some mistakes, but one in which the spirit of democracy ultimately prevails. Even the unanimous support of both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate who passed the bill is a warning sign. The very Republican senators who support making Juneteenth a national holiday simultaneously oppose critical race theory and the 1619 Project, which seek to expose the roots of racism in this country.
A more popular celebration of Juneteenth risks transforming the holiday into another peg on which to hang the cloak of mythic American greatness and one more way for people who obstruct racial progress to deny their racism. History is not an uninterrupted road to racial progress. After race-based chattel slavery, new forms of oppression arose: convict leasing, sharecropping, Jim Crow segregation, and lynching. Slavery did not mark an end to all racial oppression. Racism never goes away, it adapts.
Instead of succumbing to lazy historical memory, Juneteenth should be an opportunity to educate and reeducate people about slavery, racism, white supremacy, and Black resistance. There will be a need to talk about the partial progress that emancipation secured as well as the uneven support of white abolitionists and Northerners. We need to speak of the monumental efforts Black people took to wrestle their freedom from the clutches of injustice.
It is a truism of US history that whenever Black people assert their history, identity, and culture, there is a concomitant backlash from white reactionaries. As people across the nation proactively celebrate Juneteenth, there could be a surge of attempts to celebrate the Confederacy and the antebellum South — rallies at Confederate monuments, bills to glorify Confederate leaders with holidays and remembrances, a proliferation of signs and symbols of white supremacy.
A backlash has already occurred in the protests against initiatives such as the 1619 Project and the manufactured outrage against critical race theory. In the eagerness to celebrate Juneteenth on a broader scale, we should not be surprised when others reveal how much they wish Black people would once again “know their place.”
Every celebration of the Black freedom struggle — from Martin Luther King Jr. Day to Black History Month — is subject to misappropriation. But that is not a reason to refrain from celebrating; it is a call to actively shape the narrative.
To cement the authentic significance of Juneteenth in the minds and hearts of people in this nation, supporters should use every storytelling device available to shape historical memories and present actions. Podcasts, videos, articles, books, poetry, music — any imaginative and creative effort should be deployed in service of preserving the truth and importance of Juneteenth.
Whatever the merits of making Juneteenth a national holiday, those who care about Black freedom have the clear mandate to constantly tell the accurate story of Juneteenth and protect it from the unintended consequences of taking this moment mainstream.
Jemar Tisby is deputy director of narrative and advocacy at the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. He is the author of “How to Fight Racism” and “The Color of Compromise.” Follow him on Twitter @JemarTisby.