In 2002 I was at the University of Iowa conducting research on the history of Emancipation Day celebrations in the state. I remember at one point being somewhat baffled by what Leslie Schwalm, the professor I was working with, had found: From 1865 to 1963, there were more than 200 Emancipation Day festivities in Iowa alone. I had always thought of the event as a Texas holiday.
While most enslaved people were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation put forth by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, those in Texas weren’t made aware of the decree until 1865. On June 19 of that year, Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that the war was over and the enslaved were now, finally, free. Scholars have debated the many reasons for the two-year delay, but one thing is clear: Black people in almost every state have celebrated June 19, or Juneteenth, for generations.
Historically, Juneteenth has not been widely recognized outside of black communities, and it’s taken some time for the general public to acknowledge the date officially. Over the past 40 years, 47 of 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have come to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or a day of observance, but it’s not yet a federal holiday. And given the current nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism, major corporations such as Nike, Uber, Spotify, and J. C. Penney have designated Juneteenth as a paid holiday. Though holidays, symbols, statues, and flags matter, it will take more than increased recognition of Juneteenth to combat racism. If not followed with substantive change, the relatively recent scramble to acknowledge Juneteenth will just feel like virtue signaling, acts of solidarity that ring hollow.
Whether companies and governments get it right or not, black-led celebrations will remain the heart of Juneteenth. Early events venerated black Civil War veterans and were mainly held in private places that could be shielded from the white gaze. Later ones were marked by reunions, parades, and symbolic foods such as strawberry soda, red beans and rice, red velvet cake, and watermelon (the color red represents the perseverance of black ancestors). Black churches often spearheaded the day’s programming, which could include speeches from children who memorized quotes from their favorite black heroes, or singing of the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Post–World War II commemorations were not complete until someone read the Emancipation Proclamation aloud.
Today, Juneteenth serves as an occasion for voter-registration drives and to support black-owned businesses or community fundraisers. This year in Houston, you can attend a virtual parade or take a Juneteenth bike ride. In Los Angeles, you can go on a four-mile walk to the Juneteenth monument at Ganesha Park. In New Orleans, you can visit Congo Square, a historical gathering place for enslaved and free people, or you can spend the day at the Whitney Plantation, the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a direct focus on the lives of enslaved people.
Despite the numerous ways to honor Juneteenth, one thing about the holiday endures throughout generations: the paradox of black people’s lived experiences. How could they at once celebrate freedom and acknowledge that the residue of slavery continues to influence their lives? The turn of the century represented the height of black minstrelsy, violent attacks on black communities, and the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which made segregation the law of the land. John L. Thompson, the editor of the Iowa State Bystander, the state’s most prestigious black newspaper at the time, grappled with how to negotiate what he saw as a new era of American race relations. At an Emancipation Day celebration in 1898, Thompson asked the audience to “see the slave scarred veterans who are before me today and have witness to their once cruel and inhuman treatment,” noting that “all of this was done under our beautiful and so-called flag of the free.”
Now many black Americans are wrestling with how to celebrate Juneteenth amid the protests and the coronavirus pandemic. I came across a tweet that read, “Some of us fight racism by raising our black children to know joy. This matters too.” Black Americans have always held both jubilation and sorrow in their hands: Demonstrators will chant “I can’t breathe” and in the same space break out into a collective electric slide. As Imani Perry wrote for The Atlantic, “Racism is terrible. Blackness is not.”
One of my colleagues at Rhodes College, the professor Charles McKinney, wrote recently to his black students: “We are not solely the history of fighting white folks. That is not who we are. We are double-dutch in summer. We are letting the air out of Big Mama’s house. We are Uncle Ray’s jokes on top of jokes. We are collards, second lines, and blue lights in the basement. We are swagger in the midst of chaos. We are reunions and step shows. We are the borough and the bayou. We are church till two, and the corner till four. We are a universe of experiences.”
And so, in the middle of a chaotic period in this nation’s history, Black Americans pause to celebrate. They will barbecue, and dance, and pray, and love, and live in the name of freedom. The rest of America can use the day off to work on its own freedom—from a shameful past and a violent present.