Did you know it’s a special day in our country today? It’s Juneteenth!
I hadn’t known about this important holiday until last year. I’m not alone. There are many folks, especially white folks, who haven’t heard about it.
Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas on June 19th, 1865. Those who are acquainted with history might realize that’s a full two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. The news apparently traveled very, very slowly.
Juneteenth celebrations were first local to Texas but because of the Great Migration they started to take root all over the nation. They took on particular significance during the Civil Rights Movement. Today it is a recognized state holiday in most states and there are celebrations nationwide.
Henry Louis Gates points out that there were many other dates that could have been chosen to celebration emancipation. The proximity to 4th of July however draws an important contrast between the various stories of independence in our country. Most of my life I’ve celebrated and considered July 4th to be an American holiday equally applicable to all Americans. But of course it is not. American experiences of freedom, independence, and liberation are very divergent. We don’t have one shared independence story. There are many.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the distinctions between a proclamation of independence and a proclamation of emancipation. Do they create the same kind of freedom? Do those who declared independence still experience painful vestiges of British colonialism hundreds of years later? On the other hand, do those who heard the declaration of emancipation still experience the vestiges of enslavement hundreds of years later? What does July 4th mean for people who have been always been American but not always or entirely free?
In an article for PBS Gates quotes Frederick Douglas from 1852, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity.”
The story and existence of Juneteenth has been a helpful way for my family to nuance and explore the notion of freedom, emancipation, and independence in America. It’s helped us to open up a conversation about the different experiences of freedom in our country, and how easy it could be (for us) to pretend that our individual story is broadly representative of everyone’s.
We used the following two books as a way to begin and deepen those conversations.