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How to celebrate the complexity of Juneteenth

It’s not just an excuse to indulge in a long weekend, celebrating Juneteenth means acknowledging the horrors that came before and after it.

How to celebrate the complexity of Juneteenth
[Photo: MARK FELIX/AFP via Getty Images]

“What are you doing for Juneteenth?”

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It isn’t a question I ever grew up asking or being asked. But now, a year after its recognition as a federal holiday, it’s time for all of us to think about how we’re going to answer.

In some ways, it’s incredible that it’s taken us this long to acknowledge and discuss the memorialization of such a landmark moment in our history. If we as Americans define ourselves today in part by what we are not–i.e., ruthless slave-owners and -traders–then shouldn’t we be a little more proactive about celebrating the day we left that dark chapter behind?

As many of us know, it isn’t quite that simple. For starters, Juneteenth did not mark the end of enforced, free labor for Black people in this country. The history of institutionalized racism and economic disenfranchisement continued for at least a century through the Jim Crow years up until the Civil Rights Movement.

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But perhaps more important, this holiday is emotionally complex. It commemorates a day that we all moved forward, yes, but at terrible costs. It is bitter as well as hopeful. And for that reason, it’s not yet clear what function it plays in our annual constellation of religious, family, and national holidays.

To understand what Juneteenth means to us today, we have to understand where it comes from. We can learn from the emotional complexity of this day once we understand our place in its history. Only then can we begin to build a future for Juneteenth that honors our past and present, while looking forward to a better future.

The history of Juneteenth

When Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it had limited effects on the lives of slaves living in the Confederacy. It was difficult to enforce in many of these states, though Union soldiers (especially Black ones) made an effort to spread the news across the nation’s plantations and labor camps. And as the Union army advanced into more and more Confederate states, enslaved people fled behind Union lines to finally find their freedom.

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Even after General Lee surrendered in Virginia in April 1865, two months passed before news of emancipation reached some states. Included among these was Texas, which hadn’t experienced a significant Union army presence at any point throughout the war. It was therefore something of a haven for enslavers, who fled there to ensure they retained control over the people they saw as their property.

On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, to ensure that the state would comply with the mandates of the Union. This was the day on which Texans were finally informed that slavery was at an end in their state. At the time, there were around 250,000 slaves living in Texas–it was the final frontier for abolition.

Even then, many slave-owners withheld information and kept Black people enslaved through the end of the harvest season. It then took until December 1865 for the government to formally ratify the 13th Amendment, legally abolishing slavery in the United States (“except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”–a critical clause for the Jim Crow era, in which Black people were routinely convicted of absurd, inescapable crimes and forced to pay fines with their free labor).

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But on June 19th, enough enslaved people in Texas heard the news that celebrations broke out, which is how Juneteenth was born.

Many formerly enslaved people wasted no time in putting their freedom to use: They emigrated to the North or other states to find family members and paying jobs. In the ensuing ten years, the period known as Reconstruction, still more would establish schools, run for political office, lobby for equal treatment under the law, and even pursue legal action against former slaveholders. It was a dynamic period of experimentation and empowerment for Black people, as well as many others in the postwar nation.

During this period, many former slaves began to commemorate Juneteenth, with some even returning to Galveston to mark the occasion. Celebrations included all the typical holiday goodies: great food, family, games, treats for kids, and, because it was Texas, rodeos. It was of course a day of joy and celebration, but also reflection and education, in which elders were often brought in to recount their experiences in the pre-Civil War era.

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While the history of Juneteenth stretches back over 150 years, many of us only heard of it for the first time two years ago”

But in the early 1900s, Juneteenth started to wane in popularity. As classroom education and textbooks became more widespread, fewer people remembered this day as the end of slavery. (That credit would pass to the Emancipation Proclamation.) Eventually, the Great Depression and other economic forces made it difficult for many Black communities to celebrate a day that was never officially recognized as a holiday. And, of course, distance from the Civil War and the realities of slavery made it harder for younger generations to connect with the importance of the event.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that Juneteenth became celebrated on a large scale outside of Texas (two of the biggest celebrations being in Minneapolis and Milwaukee). Texas made it a state holiday in 1980, and it has spread across the U.S. since then thanks to activists’ perseverance. In 2021, it became a federally recognized holiday, requiring all of us to figure out what it will mean to us in the 21st century.

What is Juneteenth today?

The question may seem simple, but it has to be asked. While the history of Juneteenth stretches back over 150 years, many of us only heard of it for the first time two years ago, in the outpouring of grief and rage that followed the murder of George Floyd.

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To be perfectly honest, that includes me. I didn’t grow up talking about Juneteenth. I didn’t learn about it in school. And I certainly didn’t have any parallel for commemorating or memorializing such an intense, integral part of my history as a Black man in America.

When I did learn about it, I was leading a diversity tech company. It was somewhat embarrassing–almost shameful–to be in a position of leadership at Jopwell and not know how to respond to the task of celebrating Juneteenth.

But I quickly realized that many people were experiencing similar emotions. It wasn’t fair of me to feel ashamed when I hadn’t been raised to think about this particular chapter in a commemorative way. Like many others in American middle and high schools, I learned about slavery, racism, and the Civil War as difficult and emotionally fraught topics. But no one ever suggested that the day it all supposedly ended was something worth celebrating, let alone taking a day off for.

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When I did finally learn about Juneteenth, I found myself asking a lot of difficult questions about how to celebrate something I’d never celebrated before.

The first being: Is it actually a time for celebration? One would hope, but celebrating it means acknowledging the horrors that came before and after it. It’s not just an excuse to set off fireworks and indulge in a long weekend, like the Fourth of July. This day is much more complex than that.

Is it a day of reflection, a day of solemn remembrance and meditation? Again, this seems sensible, but somewhat incomplete. In this way, Juneteenth might be akin to something like Holocaust Remembrance Day, which honors the victims of a mind-boggling destruction of life at a specific point in history.

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But Juneteenth also commemorates liberation. It points to a moment that ended not just a centuries-long destruction of life, but of human spirit. It therefore goes beyond remembrance, because it calls to mind the resilience and progress of the Black community in this country since June 19th, 1865.

If we think critically about how we celebrate, commemorate, and take action, we’ll be able to create new traditions that bring healing and progress on this complex day.”

So maybe it would be better as a day of service? Should we be asking ourselves what we can do on this day in our communities, or how we can give back in ways that attend to the historical effects of racism and the legacy of slavery? Thinking and celebrating are important, but so is taking action.

The truth is, I think Juneteenth can be all of these things. And as a relatively new holiday (for many of us), it’s critical we ask these questions ahead of time and get proactive about what we’re going to make meaning out of this day.

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That will look different in the many different communities that live in this country. But if we think critically about how we celebrate, commemorate, and take action, we’ll be able to create new traditions that bring healing and progress on this complex day.

A future for Juneteenth

Luckily, Juneteenth has a rich history from which we can draw inspiration. It has always celebrated freedom and the historical end of slavery, but it also centers Black excellence and achievement. It is a day of reflection and remembrance, as well as a time to look toward the future.

With that in mind, I thought I’d share how I plan to celebrate this year. I’ll be spending Juneteenth with my wife’s family and will be organizing a special dinner to mark the occasion. With my two young daughters there, I want to begin a tradition of commemorating our history, but also sharing stories and experiences of how far we’ve come as Black Americans. And as we all share our different experiences at the table, I hope my children will learn the value of open dialogue about these difficult topics.

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For my larger network, I plan on pushing friends and colleagues to engage with whatever material they find educational or meaningful. That can be journalism, fiction, art, or film–anything that helps solidify our collective understanding of Juneteenth and the history of Black America since. The 1619 Project, for example, is a source I often return to for its clarity and accessibility.

Juneteenth is an opportunity for all Americans to think about how we engage with our history, and how we commemorate the past critically and truthfully. It is also a time for us to reflect on the present, and openly discuss what has changed and what hasn’t. If we’re able to use our brains and hearts on June 19th to these ends, we’re doing Juneteenth right.

And of course, finally, specifically within the Black community, Juneteenth is an opportunity to celebrate our strength. Despite so many obstacles, we have always overcome. And we will continue to do so. Take a moment to honor that truth and look to our community for reassurance and hope. It’s because of our struggle that we get to find so much strength in one another.

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Happy Juneteenth, everyone. In whatever way is right for you, make it count.

Porter Braswell is the Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of Jopwell, Founder of Diversity Explained, author of Let Them See You, and host of the podcast Race at Work. Subscribe to his weekly content pieces at Diversity Explained.

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