Guest editorial by Zuri Davis originally published on June 19, 2020
It’s Time to Celebrate Juneteenth, America’s Other Indpendence Day
Though Juneteenth is first and foremost a celebration of the end of slavery, the day has evolved in the 21st century.
On June 19, 1865, nearly 20,000 troops led by Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas. Granger read from Order No. 3, which informed the people of Texas that the remaining 250,000 slaves were to be freed and could begin working for wages. These slaves were among the very last in the country to hear the news of their freedom, two years after President Abraham Lincoln read his Emancipation Proclamation. The news was met with celebration across the state.
From that day forth, the day and its yearly celebrations were remembered as Juneteenth, America’s other independence day.
Though Juneteenth is first and foremost a celebration of freedom, the day has taken on new challenges in the 21st century.
Young black Americans are encouraged by their elders to remember their history and respect the harsh circumstances that defined their origins. There is an understanding that if history dies in a generation, it runs the risk of being lost forever. Younger generations have not only accepted this charge but are actively trying to make these stories part of the mainstream American narrative.
This is best portrayed in the 2017 Juneteenth episode of ABC’s Black-ish. Andre Johnson, portrayed by Anthony Anderson, attempts to teach his coworkers and family the significance of Juneteenth. Johnson and his family encounter some frustration as they realize that there is very little knowledge about—and interest in—Juneteenth. At one point, the show even commentates that Irish Americans don’t have to beg other Americans to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
By the end of the episode, the Johnsons decide to celebrate Juneteenth by throwing a cookout, as they would do on the Fourth of July. There is some small hope that by normalizing celebrations of the holiday and teaching its importance whenever possible, others will come to see why it is deserving of more recognition.
Juneteenth will similarly be celebrated throughout the week with cookouts, parades, and other parties in various cities across America, as has been done in the past. Several individual states continue to make official declarations to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday. But there’s a desire among some celebrants for Juneteenth to be even bigger.
Many hope to make it a national holiday; the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation has started several petitions to reach that very goal.
It’s not a crazy thought. Juneteenth has already reached the White House, with Presidents Trump and Obama giving statements each year to commemorate the occasion.
So why is there such a push to make Juneteenth mainstream?
Frederick Douglass answers this question best in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Less than 100 years after Thomas Jefferson declared that “all men are created equal,” Douglass questioned the “national inconsistencies” of Independence Day. A former slave himself, Douglass confronts the clear hypocrisy of white Americans celebrating values like liberty and freedom at the same time an entire enslaved population existed among them.
Never shying from his blunt style, Douglass offers the following:
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; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
Today’s Juneteenth observers feel similarly. If many so readily observe a day where freedom was granted to some, why wouldn’t they want to also celebrate a holiday that recognizes the day freedom was granted to all?
There are those who won’t see the importance of recognizing such a day and those who will read this and look for the closest celebration. It is the hope of today’s Juneteenth observers that those who hear of the holiday, or any other important date in black history for that matter, both recognize the significance and accept it easily as American history like any other event that occurred on this land.
Guest editorial by Zuri Davis originally published on June 19, 2020.