I won’t pretend Juneteenth has always meant a lot to me.
I was born in Texas, as were my parents and most of my kin, all the way back to at least the 19th century, when some of them were enslaved. Still, for most of my life, the day was just another holiday marked on the community calendar — even if it was our day, a day for Black Texans. Perhaps one sign that a thing belongs to you is that you take it for granted.
The past few years have forced some stronger feelings to the surface.
I’ve grown possessive as our day became everybody’s. Since it became a federal holiday last year, Juneteenth is marked on every calendar — even those of folks like the Donald Trump supporter I met in Dallas last fall who lamented “this critical race theory stuff” being taught in schools and scoffed at the idea of “white privilege.”
Last year, in a defiant mood, I vowed not to write about the holiday at all and instead spent it on the beach with my boyfriend in Galveston. “Love to the ancestors,” I tweeted. “Lemme know when the reparations check arrives.”
More recently, my strong feeling was anger toward Walmart. This spring the company released a commemorative sweet treat, Celebration Edition: Juneteenth Ice Cream, alongside Juneteenth plates, napkins and even a can koozie that read, “It’s the freedom for me.” I was shocked at first, as were countless others.
Then I asked myself, how exactly should the whole nation celebrate a day like this? Juneteenth is a peculiar holiday, perhaps befitting the “peculiar institution” of slavery. That June 19 in 1865, the day we now celebrate as a nation, was the day that Black Texans officially received some of the stalest news in American history.
Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger stepped out on a balcony in Galveston and announced, “The people of Texas are informed … that all slaves are free.” It might have been thrilling to hear that news, but it was also outrageous to hear it so late: two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863; two months after the Confederacy’s Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered; two months after Lincoln was killed. If we got upset about some Juneteenth ice cream, imagine how those roughly 250,000 enslaved Texans must have felt when they found out they had been the victims of horrendous overtime fraud.
But really, what holiday isn’t distorted or irony laden in this country? We celebrate Labor Day, while a 2021 report revealed that American workers have it worse than every other developed country when it comes to workplace benefits. We celebrate Thanksgiving yet rarely acknowledge that that fabled first meal between the Native Americans and colonists would be followed by genocide. I don’t even have to explain the absurdity of the F.B.I. wishing us all a happy Martin Luther King’s Birthday.
The Roman poet Juvenal signaled that an empire could control its citizens through giving them “bread and circuses.” The American empire gives us holidays.
What are we to do with Juneteenth? I say we look to another bastardized American holiday: Easter.
I was raised an evangelical Christian and sometimes think of all those Easter Sundays spent in church. New suits and dresses. Easter egg hunts. Candy out the wazoo. Most of all, I think of how each year, my cousin Rhodia Fay would rise before our congregation and recite James Weldon Johnson’s “The Crucifixion,” a long dramatic poem detailing Christ’s murder. By the time she reached the final stanza, she’d be trembling, sweating, in tears:
Oh, I tremble, yes, I tremble
It causes me to tremble, tremble,
When I think how Jesus died;
Died on the steeps of Calvary,
How Jesus died for sinners,
Sinners like you and me.
Rhodia Fay has passed on, so I can’t ask her, but I do believe that she believed a man had hung and died for her 2,000 years ago. All the foolishness of Easter didn’t dilute the event’s meaning, didn’t make her grief and gratitude less real.
This Juneteenth, those are the feelings I’m channeling: grief and gratitude, even amid the silliness of America’s pageantry.
My grandmother Clarice was born in Pelham, Texas, a freedmen’s town. She took us grandchildren back for homecoming most years, sometimes even had us pick cotton, reminding us, “You’ve got to know your history.” She also told us of the folks she knew in Pelham as a child, some of whom were born enslaved, a fact that horrified me. Clarice always refused my sympathies.
“Child, don’t be believing what folks say about how bad slavery was,” she’d explain. “Everybody had a job, a place to stay and something to eat. Now if somebody came and paid your rent, you wouldn’t be sitting up talking about you wanna leave, would you?”
This dumbfounded me, until I realized she was mostly joking. But there was something deeper in her response. I eventually learned more about the violence that met newly emancipated Black Texans. Ku Klux Klansmen, along with local officials and everyday citizens, terrorized freedmen at will and without repercussions. They burned churches and homes, intimidated those who sought employment, and worse. Gen. Joseph Jones Reynolds, a commander of the Department of Texas during Reconstruction, commented in 1868, “The murder of Negroes is so common as to render it impossible to keep an accurate account of them.” The Equal Justice Initiative has tried, reporting that more than 2,000 Black women, men and children were victims of racial terrorist lynchings during Reconstruction, which lasted from 1865 to 1877.
Slavery was awful, no doubt, but emancipation brought its own unique cruelties. Formerly enslaved Texans were forced to craft lives from less than scratch; choose new names; attempt to reunite with stolen partners, siblings, children. They faced daily threats of jail or worse because of the new Black codes that severely restricted their freedom — their freedom to work, but also their freedom to be unemployed or even to stand still for too long.
The more I learned, the more I understood my grandmother’s perspective. She’d heard the testimonies of those who’d had to navigate both the tragedy of slavery and the terror of emancipation. She couldn’t let me underestimate the enormous price our people had paid to be free.
I miss Clarice so much some days, it’s hard to think straight. I regret not asking more questions about our family, about her life in Pelham. As more folks in Clarice’s generation pass away, we are losing the final physical links to those who know our history — who are our history. We can do no better this Juneteenth than to spend time with the elders who are still with us. Get them to talk. Record their stories.
These historical and systemic injustices have not been resolved. But as Black Americans, we cannot wait for the day when our country will pay the respect that is due our forebears — or pay us those reparations.
Instead of holding our breath, let us find the freshest air we can find and breathe it as deeply as we can, with joy. Let us grieve for our forebears and feel deep gratitude as we think of the enormous price our people paid so we could be free. Let us remember that despite the degradation of slavery, they lived fully human lives, too. They laughed. They loved. They dreamed. They ate sweet treats. Let us pray to them and say, this year and always: Thank you.
Casey Gerald (@CaseyGerald) is the author of the memoir “There Will Be No Miracles Here.” His essays include “The Black Art of Escape,” which reflects on the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans’ arrival in Virginia, in 1619.
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Freedom finally came on June 19, 1865, when some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. The army announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved black people in the state, were free by executive decree. This day came to be known as "Juneteenth," by the newly freed people in Texas.What is the true meaning of Juneteenth NYT? ›
Although the celebration of Juneteenth, which commemorates June 19, 1865, as the end of slavery, has gained popularity in recent years, it's long been a deeply personal holiday acknowledged by many African American families and communities.What is the best way to explain Juneteenth? ›
Juneteenth – also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, and Emancipation Day – is a holiday celebrating the emancipation of African Americans who had been enslaved in the United States.Who made Juneteenth a federal holiday in 2022? ›
The bipartisan legislation was signed into law by President Biden on June 17, giving Juneteenth the same status as Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and other federal holidays.What do the colors of Juneteenth mean? ›
People designed this flag to tell the story of Juneteenth. The colors: The colors of the American flag – red white and blue. This is to say that the people freed in Texas were American citizens. The 5-point star is a symbol for Texas (the Lone Star State) Texas is where the Juneteenth holiday started.What does the white star on the Juneteenth flag symbolize? ›
White. Mirroring the white of the American flag, the white stars on the Juneteenth flag represent the emancipation of enslaved Black people in Texas who, upon being freed, became Americans under the law. The five-pointed star represents Texas, aka the Lone Star State, where the freeing took place.What is the difference between Juneteenth and Independence Day? ›
Independence Day commemorates the Declaration of Independence, which was ratified on July 4, 1776, thus establishing the United States of America. Juneteenth marks the effective end of slavery in the US.Does Juneteenth have a symbol? ›
That banner with a bursting star in the middle is the Juneteenth Flag, a symbolic representation of the end of slavery in the United States. The flag is the brainchild of activist Ben Haith, founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation (NJCF).What is Juneteenth for dummies? ›
The holiday recognizes June 19, 1865, when Union army soldiers, led by Gen. Gordon Granger, told the enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War was over and they'd been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Lincoln January 1, 1863.Is Juneteenth the end of slavery? ›
Dating back to 1865, Juneteenth commemorates the day when 250,000 slaves in the state of Texas, which became the last bastion for slavery during the final days of the Civil War, were declared free by the U.S. Army.
Just Say 'Happy Juneteenth! ' The easiest way to wish someone a Happy Juneteenth is by messaging them and wishing them a fulfilled day. Similar to Black History Month, and other important anniversaries to Black Americans, it is important to acknowledge it as an American holiday, even if you do not celebrate it.Was Texas the last state to free slaves? ›
Texas was not the last state to free enslaved people
Since the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to members of the wartime Union, five states where slavery was still legal in January 1863 were unaffected by the Emancipation Proclamation: Maryland, Missouri, West Virginia, Delaware and Kentucky.
Passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States.When did slavery actually end? ›
As a legal matter, slavery officially ended in the United States on Dec. 6, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was ratified by three-quarters of the then-states — 27 out of 36 — and became a part of the Constitution.