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The bittersweet triumph of a Juneteenth national holiday

There’s something wholly disarming about a cultural tradition — especially one known for its complicated origins, rooted in racism — turning into a national moment.

Images from Adobe Stock; Globe staff photo illustration

We’d all rather not, but can you take a moment to remember the summer of 2020 — the tweets and posts and hashtags from corporations, schools, your employer stating their (re)new(ed) commitment to Black lives? And the Juneteenth conversations the year after the murder of George Floyd when President Biden signed the bill making it a federal holiday?

“So excited we now have the day off!” a colleague shared on Facebook. “Yup!” I responded, clicking the happy emoji.

But I wondered: Who the heck is “we”? There’s something wholly disarming about a cultural tradition — especially one known for its complicated origins, rooted in racism — turning into a national moment. I’m talking about Juneteenth, and the problem of “we” speak.


I conducted a completely unscientific study among my Black peers and friends and asked them how they felt about the Juneteenth holiday. Were they familiar with it, and if so, did they support celebrating this day on an official, national scale? What did they think about its movement to the center of societal norms, with a recognized day off, and the sale of themed merchandise? Because of the history, the trauma, and what happens when we cope with the uncontrollable, these aren’t simple or straightforward conversations.

A friend shared a tweet promoting Walmart’s own ice cream brand offering a “Celebration Edition” flavor for Juneteenth. The container’s packaging design featured ambiguous African colors — green, red, and yellow — and was captioned: Share and celebrate African-American culture, emancipation and enduring hope.

Look, I get it. We’re a capitalist nation with a long history of co-opting and commercializing the lived experiences of human beings (Che Guevara T-shirts, BLM at Target). In some ways this is simply the country at its most authentic. Slavery was the foundation of our nation’s economy and slavery is, by definition, the exploitation of living, breathing bodies for the profit of others.


But does everyone understand Juneteenth arose from a civil war and injustices that still permeate our society? Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was in name only — it was unenforceable in places the Confederate Army still controlled in 1863. Places like Galveston Bay, Texas, where on June 19, 1865, Union troops arrived and announced to more than a quarter million illegally enslaved Black people that they’d been emancipated — for the past two years. This is why it is such a communal and intimate celebration for many generations of Black folk, particularly from the South. To celebrate Juneteenth was to exercise an overdue freedom with which they could try and reunite with countless displaced loved ones and families. It was not about any sort of all-American unity.

Immediately following this news in the post-emancipation period known as Reconstruction, newly freed Black people started their own schools and began to run for office. This was met with lethal retaliation — lynchings increased significantly.

Now in 2022, we’re supposed to come together as one and observe Juneteenth. But what happens the day after? Are Black people still being shot and killed by the state? Are we still suffering with

lethal consequences when seeking medical attention? Are we now able to create and sustain the generational wealth of our white countrymen?

We’re supposed to look the other way when corporations that make public statements in solidarity and sell Black Lives Matter and Juneteenth-themed merchandise are some of the same ones that donated to the reelection campaign of a president who called those protesters thugs and asked if they could just be shot. It’s expected that the labor of three Black women who forged the Black Lives Matter movement should lead to colorful window signs and merchandising in big-box stores.


It’s nothing short of gaslighting when white America continues to do the bare minimum in response to racist violence and then has the audacity to call it progress; when the response to the fatal strangulation of a Black man over a counterfeit $20 bill is a hashtag, or the name change of a pancake syrup.

Yes, it’s complicated. I might roll my eyes at BLM merch at Target but also, Target’s committed to investing billions of dollars in Black businesses. And that ill-mannered Walmart Juneteenth sale? Walmart’s already apologized. There are glimmers of progress, like the creation of a community advisory board in a northern California city following a racial profiling lawsuit. Cities such as Cambridge are making government-funded community policing proposals, and Biden’s May 25 executive order set new standards for federal police.

Yet I fear we remain in the throes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “lukewarm acceptance” and “shallow understanding” when our nation continues to react instead of plan. In his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, King is at a crossroads with white clergymen who claim to support his efforts except when police are involved, fearing “that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice;...who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”


If we continue to laud MLK, we must consider his words about the white extremists of his time, and the actions of those of our time who are moved to extreme violence, such as in the Buffalo mass shooting. Honoring Black history means we must address our white contemporaries who politely pause for a day or a week to recognize ongoing struggles and then continue to go about their daily lives. It means teaching American history in all of its truths.

So yes, the national Juneteenth holiday ends up leaving me — a proud Black American — cynically wondering if I’m just being placated like a tantruming child. But sure, it’s a holiday now. It’s a greeting card now. And now we get the day off.

Linda Chavers is a writer in Somerville. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.