HOW DO WE REMEMBER JUNETEENTH?
Irie Price explores the complicated emotions of celebrating freedom too long in coming.
The other day my mother asked me, “Do we really celebrate Juneteenth?”
It was a good question, one that I’ve been wrestling with, too – especially with Juneteenth just being recognized as a federal holiday. How do you really celebrate a day that remembers both Black freedom and the injustice of its delay? On one hand, Juneteenth feels like a truer Independence Day than July 4. When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, my forbears were not free. Their liberation would not come until June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger stepped onto the shores of Galveston Island, Texas to enact federal orders and declare the end of slavery more than two months after the Civil War had ended.
But on the other hand, when General Granger arrived, it was not just to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation that had been signed more than two years prior – it was to regain control of a state that was fighting progress brought by the end of the war. This fight was literal: Some Confederate soldiers still battled for the cause of the Confederacy and ex-Confederate soldiers plundered and looted towns throughout the state. But the fight was also figurative, one which saw a state continuing to enslave its Black citizens.
This story of denying, delaying, and fighting progress is part of the story of Juneteenth. In many ways, Juneteenth reminds us of white supremacist systems that attempt to quell Black freedom. First, it was the denial of Black humanity. Then, it was the delay of Black emancipation and equal protection under the law. Today, it is the fight against Black liberation through voter suppression laws, unjust sentencing, biased workplace practices, and persistent systemic injustice.
Juneteenth celebration in 1990 at Eastwoods Park. Photo Source: Austin History Center.
Liberation, Juneteenth teaches us, is often too long in coming. Perhaps that is why African Americans have long been the torchbearers of this legacy. We remember how hard-fought our liberation was and is. We remember the war that brought its arrival as well as the governments and individuals who stood in its way. And we are not afraid to tell the truth about our imperfect country, which enslaved us before it freed us.
My children are learning of this holiday, too. My husband and I observe Juneteenth by telling our children about the day’s origins – both the beauty of freedom and the bitterness of its delay. We reflect on how Black Texans were the first to observe Juneteenth, marrying the words “June” and “nineteenth” to commemorate the day General Granger brought freedom to Texas. We tell them how Black Texans told the story of Juneteenth as they migrated throughout the country, including to Charlotte, North Carolina, where I would first learn of the holiday as a little girl. And we tell them about the joy and perseverance of their Black forbears, and the systems of injustice that still plague our country. Finally, we join in celebration with others in our city to mark Juneteenth with music, with worship, and with a commitment to work to bring about freedom for all people.
So, to answer my mother’s question: Yes, we celebrate Juneteenth – but we also remember.