13 June 2018

In Consideration: Juneteenth, Our Other Independence Day

I recently had the pleasure of assisting in the planning and advertising of a local Juneteenth celebration in Flagstaff, Arizona. During the promotional period, while engaging with several local businesses and a few local radio programs, the question frequently arose: What does Juneteenth actually celebrate, and why does it matter? More pointedly, one person asked me: Why should anyone care about Juneteenth now?

Texas Juneteenth Day Celebration, 1900
(Austin History Center, Austin Public Library)
It was 155 years ago this January when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln. The proclamation effectively brought freedom to millions of slaves across ten states actively engaged in rebellion (an important distinction, given that four slave states at the time were not in rebellion, and were therefore unaffected by the proclamation). Yet news traveled slowly through the states, and it took years for many of those bound by the shackles of slavery to hear the news that they were considered bound no more. It was not until June 19, 1865 that word came to Galveston, Texas and reached the ears of slaves there bound that their chains had been broken more than two years earlier. There were approximately 250,000 slaves in Texas at the time union troops arrived in the state to implement the proclamation. Once the news made its way to Galveston, reactions ranged “from pure shock to immediate jubilation” (Juneteenth.com). Yet American history, and the very fabric of America’s slow but steady progress toward the betterment of all its people, was forever changed by this historic date.

Juneteenth began as a revered celebration in Galveston, and slowly made its way across the United States as a celebration of America’s second Independence Day … a break from the painful history of slavery in America, though not a total revocation of its wounds. It celebrates and symbolizes the end of slavery in America; but more than this, it celebrates the same thing that all Americans celebrate on the Fourth of July holiday: Freedom, and independence from those who would hold us in bondage. Freedom to travel freely. Freedom to marry. Freedom to assemble, to openly worship, to form organizations, to seek education, to claim and define one’s own name and destiny. Despite the reality of liberty and equality’s elusive distance for decades to come, Juneteenth came to represent the hope for better days, brighter futures, and a nation that could live up to the glistening promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all her citizenry.

Juneteenth serves as the reverential remembrance of celebrated, albeit delayed, change in the landscape of American history. It is a commemoration that calls upon all to reflect on the great work that has been done, and the greater work that has yet to be accomplished, to shed the future’s light on the dark shadow of America’s troubled past. It is a celebration that crosses borders, honoring a history that leads from the Underground Railroad’s paths through Canada to the Mascogos descendants of Black Seminoles who crossed the border from America to Mexico in order to escape the threat of slavery.

In answer to those who questioned its celebration in modern times, I counter that upon closer examination it is not hard to see how and why Americans need Juneteenth today. We are surrounded by reminders of the continued struggles to achieve personal freedom, gainful employment, economic equity, and the pursuit of the foundational freedoms that are etched into our Constitution and borne by Lady Liberty’s beaconing call to the tired, the poor, and those huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We are constantly reminded that for as far as we have come as a nation, we still have further to go.

Juneteenth is a call to be better. It is a call to remember the devastating impact of broken promises, and the painful touch of promises delayed. It is a call to remember the price that has been paid, and the debt yet to be fulfilled, to all those who struggle to achieve economic, social, cultural, religious, and any other form of parity in American society. It is a call to remember where we have been as a nation as we consider where we are going as one nation, under God, indivisible, with the promise of liberty and justice for all. It is a call to remember that we each have a place and a roll to play in the writing of American history, in the etching of the narrative of freedom, and in the penning of a legacy of the continued fight to raise our nation to the pinnacle of its highest ideals. Juneteenth is for all of us—let us each, and all, join together to commit to the work that has yet to be done, and to casting the shades of reality on the great and ever shifting, ever shimmering, American dream.


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