It Ain’t Over Yet: Juneteenth and the Line Between Activism and Celebration

On September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This executive order would come into effect on January 1, 1863 and it would change the legal status of 3.5 million enslaved Black Americans from slaves to free. However, this is not what Juneteenth is about. 

The American Civil War ended on May 9, 1865. And with it’s close the end of slavery was supposed to come with it. Yet, this did not happen. As slave owners did not accept the abolishment of slavery in many isolated parts of the South. Once again, this is not what Juneteenth is about.

Finally, on June 19, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger, with 2000 Federal soldiers issued General Order No. 3 in Galveston, Texas. This order final ended slavery in the United States, and allowed 250,000 enslaved Black Americans to join the nearly 3 million other recently freed enslaved people. This is what Juneteenth is about. 

Juneteenth has been observed by Black Americans since 1865. Beginning in Texas originally, it followed Southern Black Americans as they migrated out of the South to see better opportunities in the North and Western United States. Only now, in 2021, has it reached the awareness of not only Americans in general, but many others around the world. Just like official acknowledgement of the end of slavery came by force of Mjr General Granger’s Federal troops, the acknowledgement of America’s legacy of racism—at least a portion of it—came through the force of will of a summer of localized and global outrage. 

To me, Juneteenth is not only a celebration of freedom from the nightmare of bondage, but also a reminder of the power and need for tangibility. 

As the world reacted to the brutality of American racism in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a desire to understand and acknowledge Black culture began to pervade wider society. I’m sure you all noticed corporate solidarity with Blackness all throughout the summer of 2020. Some sincere, a lot of it reactionary. But hey, progress is progress. Even if it is by the stick we’ve been waving that carrot for too damn long. 

Just recently, President Joe Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth a national holiday. This is all well and good, but just as with most things, the government is slow to acknowledge what society—in this case, Black people—-is already doing.   

But make no mistake, this acknowledgement is just another illusion towards justice. A convenient distraction. The NFL apologized to Colin Kaepernick last summer, meanwhile, just this year, they stopped a medical practice for determining concussions based on race. Six Black people were shot by police within 24 hours of Derek Chauvin’s conviction. And the list of superficial actions and tangible violence goes on.

Even now as the politicians who officialized Juneteenth are patting themselves on the back, large segments of those same people are actively working to strip Critical Race Theory from being taught in schools. So now we are left with yet another contradiction—one of many in our enlightened “Western Society”—that Juneteenth celebrates the day when slavery truly ended, and that you could lose your job if you try to teach your students about why slavery was bad or how it informs modern life.

This is why, for me, Juneteenth is bittersweet. I revel in the potential for Black joy; both past and present. I long for the ideal of breaking bread in a community of solidarity and equity. But at the same time, I am not blind to the fact that there is a desire to dominate black bodies. Constant threats of violence from, whether it is directly from the state, or of someone threatening to unleash the state upon a Black body (“I'm calling the police!”). As a Black man, who shares these fears for myself, my friends, my mother, or my future child, I ask myself: How really free are we as Black people?

Juneteenth indeed is important. It is a time to reflect on how far we have come as a people and as a society at large. It is a time to appreciate and reflect on the power of solidarity and community. Slavery, Nazism (the OG version, not this Khaki revival), Apartheid in South Africa, American Civil Rights, all were possible through solidarity and kinship. Yet Black and Brown bodies are still under threat today: ongoing police brutality globally, kids in cages at the US border, Palestine on fire. 

So I encourage everyone who has taken the time to read this piece, to take some time to reflect and appreciate how far we have come. Like the abolitionists of old, who had to not only advocate for an end to slavery, but had to imagine, believe, and convince others of a possible world without such a heinous institution. Recognizing our history is valuable for not only showing where we have been, but also where we could be going.

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