This is an excerpt from Outtakes, a Globe Opinion newsletter from columnist Renée Graham. Sign up to get this in your inbox a day early.
Truth be told, many Black people never wanted a federal Juneteenth holiday. For generations, we’d done just fine in commemorating June 19, 1865, when Union Army General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with an order of emancipation for this nation’s last enslaved Black people — two months after the end of the Civil War and more than two years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
But in 2021, Congress voted overwhelmingly to make Juneteenth the first new federal holiday in nearly 40 years. Many also recognized that with such a designation, Juneteenth could be drained of its Black specificity as a means to avoid deeper conversations about slavery and how this nation has yet to fully address the ongoing harms of its foundational sin.
That’s what some see happening in Greenville, S.C. Some banners for the city’s upcoming Juneteenth celebration show a smiling white couple. There are also posters with Black, Asian, and Hispanic residents. Rueben Hays, the founder and CEO of the city’s Juneteenth GVL Mega Fest, said the holiday doesn’t belong to just one group.
“We did not want to make this exclusively Black,” Hays, who is Black, told The State, a South Carolina newspaper. “That is not in the spirit of unity.” This is the first time Hays’s organization is hosting what’s become the city’s largest Juneteenth event. Bruce Wilson, a Black community activist who had hosted the event since 2021, said the event is being “whitewashed.”
Some of us were reminded of last year’s “Juneteenth Soul Food Festival and Market” in Little Rock, Ark., with a poster featuring its three hosts — all white people. The event, which chose “unity” as its theme, was ultimately canceled.
Of course, unity is desirable. But there’s a cynical undertow when that word becomes just another tool like “civility” to dodge hard truths and pacify whiteness. While a lot of Black people appreciated the gesture of making Juneteenth a federal holiday, many of us also understood that this was all it was — a performative gesture after the police murder of George Floyd in 2020. Like those thoroughfares painted with the words “Black Lives Matter” and Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben finally being retired as food packaging logos, it projected the right optics for the moment without addressing the systemic racism and police violence that led to Floyd’s killing.
(I also personally resented the idea that for Juneteenth to be noteworthy it needed “official” status, like a watermark of white approval.)
As right-wing groups and Republican-led legislatures push for bans on books and classroom lessons about racism and slavery, it’s disingenuous to talk about unity. Real conversations about the meaning of Juneteenth are more important than ever as history is being gutted. Black people have always embraced Juneteenth for what it is — this nation’s true Independence Day. It is sacred. It is festive. And it is ours. Gentrifying commemorations and making them generically about “unity” dilutes what our ancestors endured for nearly 250 years so that we could live and undermines the immense debt this nation owes to the truth before it can attain its elusive unity.