On 17 June, Joe Biden signed a bill turning Juneteenth, 19 June, into a federal holiday. Juneteenth, a celebration of the emancipation of enslaved African Americans after the formal end of the US civil war, began in Texas in 1866 and has long been observed by many Black Americans.
The US government’s belated decision to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday is a testament to the impact of the current iteration of the perpetual movement for Black American liberation. Unfortunately, it may also be another step in the process to water down symbols of liberation: treating the brutalities of racism as a crime of the past instead of an ongoing project which both major political parties have helped helm. We should celebrate Juneteenth, while resisting attempts to co-opt its meaning and render it empty ceremony.
Juneteenth, also known as Jubilee Day and Emancipation Day, is already a highly misunderstood holiday. It is often, understandably, confused with Abraham Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared the freedom of any enslaved African Americans within the rebellious Confederate states. The proclamation was made official in 1863, at the height of the civil war, and explicitly established the war as one to end slavery. African Americans had long begun their own uprisings and escapes in the midst of the war, but the proclamation gave legal protections to the new freedmen. After Lincoln’s announcement, over 200,000 formerly enslaved people joined the Union army, playing crucial roles in the defeat of the main Confederate army on 9 April 1865. Despite the north’s burgeoning victory and the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery in the United States was far from over, and slave states that remained part of the Union did not have to acknowledge the humanity of their enslaved population.
The remaining armies of the Confederacy and small rebel guerrilla groups continued to fight well after the loss of the Confederate capital and Gen Robert E Lee’s surrender in April. Slave-owning whites in fallen Confederate states fled west to Texas, bringing with them over 100,000 enslaved African Americans in the process. It took the arrival of the Union army to begin the end of slavery in Texas. On 19 June 1865, Maj Gen Gordon Granger declared, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” While there have been many other dates for the holiday originally called Emancipation Day, 19 June became the dominant day of celebration.
Despite Granger’s announcement, white slave owners fought to keep people in bondage, even killing African Americans who fled for their freedom. Freedom had been declared in words, but it would take the military might of the Union army to enforce. This speaks volumes to how deeply the culture and economics of slavery were embedded in the United States, and to the kind of force necessary to uproot it. Of course this uprooting was in many ways incomplete; while the post-slavery Reconstruction era brought many political and economic freedoms to African Americans in the south, much of that progress would be corrupted by the slavery-like programs of sharecropping and the establishment of the prison-industrial complex that persists today.
This complicated history is what makes this holiday particularly susceptible to revisionism, in the way that highly politicized holidays in the US often are. In his proclamation to recognize Juneteenth, Biden wrote that the holiday is:
A day in which we remember the moral stain and terrible toll of slavery on our country – what I’ve long called America’s original sin. A long legacy of systemic racism, inequality, and inhumanity.
Yet the system of racial capitalism that allowed American slavery to exist still thrives today – with every Black person locked behind bars, every bullet fired by police officers into the bodies of Black children, and every Black soldier sent to murder and die to expand and maintain the country’s global system of economic domination. It is more than a little ironic that such a bill would be passed by a Congress rife with more or less open white supremacists, and signed by a president who only recently took pride in working with former segregationist politicians. For powerful American politicians to discuss Juneteenth while dismissing the idea of reparations for the descendants of enslaved African Americans is profoundly hypocritical.
Another holiday provides an instructive example: Mother’s Day can be traced to the work of Julia Ward Howe and Ann Reeves Jarvis, two peace activists who wanted to establish an anti-war holiday. Their work was carried on by Jarvis’s daughter, Anna Maria Jarvis, who lived to regret the holiday, which was rapidly commercialized and converted into another mechanism of corporate greed. Then there’s Martin Luther King Jr Day: a holiday that should be a call to action – a day in which people engage in civil disobedience or learn about the strategy and tactics of one of the most important radical organizers of the 20th century – has been sold as a day in which people must perform acts of service. While mostly well intended, that narrative muddles and dilutes King’s politics and feeds the American mythology that sporadic days of service, rather than the hard work of breaking down this system and building it anew, will somehow bring us closer to justice.
We should be happy to popularize and celebrate Juneteenth. But we should celebrate it with the same fervor in which it was celebrated the summer of 2020, with protests, political education, and an understanding that the house of the slavemaster still stands, despite a fresh coat of paint. We must celebrate Juneteenth knowing the kind of force it took for enslaved African Americans to attain emancipation – and the equivalent political force it may take to finally and absolutely uproot the American capitalist machine that seeks profit at the expense of Black freedom.