What the Push to Celebrate Juneteenth Conceals

The recent effort to make the anniversary a federal holiday is undermined by the simultaneous attack on critical race theory and curricula focused on the enduring legacy of slavery.

Joe Biden signs Juneteenth bill.
This Juneteenth feels different, as more non-Black Americans are now incorporating it into their summer celebrations and lawmakers have pushed to observe the holiday at a federal level. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

When you are Black in America, how do you celebrate progress? How do you honor the history and memory of emancipation, liberation, and advancement? How do Black people mark a moment when a positive change transformed the trajectory of their lives, their nation? For many Black Americans that moment has been Juneteenth, or June 19, the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, received word that they were free, some two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect. But when I think about Juneteenth, I am mostly stuck on that delay: the time it took for more than 250,000 enslaved Texans to experience what some 3 million other formerly enslaved Americans already had. Though Texan planters had long known the Civil War was over, they had hoped to get one more harvest out of their human property. In this country, hiding history has always been about maintaining control, denying concession, and delaying justice.

This spring, I have been perplexed by anniversaries meant to honor history. Memorial Day, a holiday created by Black people to honor Black veterans in Charleston, South Carolina, seemed this year to focus more on remembering George Floyd and commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre. This Juneteenth also feels different, as more non-Black Americans are now incorporating it into their summer celebrations and lawmakers have pushed to observe the holiday at a federal level. Yet it seems the memory of Juneteenth is being shaped by symbolic rather than substantive gains. Moreover, the proliferation of Juneteenth events is taking place at the same time as the banning of critical race theory and curricula focused on slavery’s lasting effects. It is impossible to celebrate Juneteenth and simultaneously deny the teaching of America’s foundational legacy.

This disconnect exists because there is a pointed difference between history and memory. History is the study of the past. History consists of facts, events, people, and irrefutable occurrences. History is American slavery and the Civil War and emancipation. How Americans understand slavery, the Civil War, and emancipation, though, is colored by memory, which tends to honor only the most shallow aspects of history. Statues, flags, and songs are part of the tangible manifestations of memory, and what is worthy of remembering in this country is often highly contested. In my years of work as a historian, I have found that the public usually uses history and memory interchangeably, though they are not the same. History is immovable. Memory is malleable. I am constantly thinking about how to reconcile history with memory, the past with the present, and symbolic changes with systemic ones.

Holidays, like memories, are chosen. They are collective social agreements employed to acknowledge an event or a person. Often composed of parades, barbecues, and corporate sponsorships, the observation of a holiday is relatively low-stakes and usually distanced from the full history that compelled it. Though Black folks have honored their ancestors in meaningful ways on Juneteenth for more than a century, to many non-Black citizens it marks a day off from work and little else. But holidays cannot be divorced from history. Americans cannot discuss freedom and the Fourth of July without invoking slavery. Americans cannot celebrate Memorial Day without paying homage to those who died in service of their country. Americans cannot recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day without confronting the violence of white supremacy. Choosing to remember palatable histories over painful histories serves no one—it merely fosters fantasy.

Critical race theory, an examination of the social, political, and economic impact of racism and white supremacy in America, counters that fantasy. This is the charge of historians and educators: to make sense of the past and grapple with its implications. Chris Brown, a historian at Columbia University, has argued that for abolitionists to be successful, they had to do more than just condemn slavery. Most people knew that slavery was at least morally dubious, but it was exceedingly profitable. Brown says that the abolitionists had to, in effect, reimagine a world without slavery, one with a viable and lucrative alternative. They had to rethink powerful systems. They had to believe that abolition was possible and that a rejection of white supremacy and capitalism was necessary. History is instructive for showing us not merely what has been, but also what could be.

People can use Juneteenth as a day to move toward new futures by registering voters, getting more folks vaccinated, or pushing elected officials to carry out the work of reparations. If Americans fight to make sure history and critical thinking are integral parts of the classroom experience, students can use that knowledge to change the trajectory of society. Thus, critical race theory does not create division; it engenders solidarity by recognizing our common humanity, and compelling Americans to allot resources so that everyone might obtain liberty.

At the end of his life, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, “This is a beautiful world, this is a wonderful America, which the founding fathers dreamed until their sons drowned it in the blood of slavery and devoured it in greed.” But Du Bois was also hopeful, adding, “Our children must rebuild it.” To do this, our past cannot be denied. Acknowledging it is crucial to rethinking and rebuilding a more perfect union. As long as our holidays are unaccompanied by the learning, or relearning, of hard truths, superficial symbols will remain the dominant markers of memory, absent of history.