Juneteenth: Business as Usual?
The celebration of Juneteenth is a Black American Tradition. On June 19, 1865—two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was pronounced on January 1, 1863—the slaves of Texas were finally informed of their freedom. There are a couple of stories about why it took the Texas slaves so long to be informed that they were free. One story is that “the messenger” was killed on the journey to notify them, and the other is that the slave masters wanted to hold on to the labor force awhile longer to plant and harvest the next crops (Richen).
Whichever story you believe is of little consequence considering Black Americans today have continued to celebrate Juneteenth—which is awesome—but we have also adopted the behaviors of society at-large by celebrating United States “holidays.” We have been conditioned to “celebrate” these holidays, not so much as a show of patriotism, but to continue White America’s tradition of steering narratives around what benefits them. American holidays have long made me uncomfortable. One (and probably the final) pivotal event was July 4th, 2003, in Los Angeles. My husband and I set out to take our children to enjoy the fireworks. Another tradition, right? We settled on a blanket in a grassy area with an array of snacks in some park just before dusk, and as soon as the fireworks popped off, my daughter—who was about 18 months old at the time—let out a blood-curdling scream. We packed up our things, drove pass many terrified barking dogs, and went home. Since then, I have resented the commercials about holiday sales and ways for families to prepare for upcoming holidays. After that Independence Day, I wanted no part of it. And I still don’t.
When I discovered recently that the word “cowboy” came from a term used to refer to Black male slaves who rounded up cattle—cow boy— (Richen), I thought about what the day may have been like when they found out they were free; how they planned to set out on their own, with what few belongings they could carry (or were allowed to take) and how they decided where they would go thereafter. I also thought about the slaves who decided to stay for fear of not landing on their feet, out of loyalty to their master, or for some other reason. I think about the surnames many of us carry that signify our heritage only as the names are tied to slave masters, the slave masters who owned our families (unless, of course, your family was already free before 1863). American holidays, to me, have become nothing more than a modern-day brainwashing scheme that pours money into the economy as some twisted way to show solidarity with a country that by and large neither acknowledges, respects, or appreciates Black American contributions.
I appreciate what Juneteenth should be, what it can be, what it has been, and what it symbolizes. It is my hope, however, that we use these annual celebrations (of freedom) to learn our personal family history, perpetuate causes that will impact the lives of our generations to come, and that also helps deepen the experiences of Black Americans now. Paying homage to our ancestors and elders is necessary, and if Juneteenth can do that (in an authentic way), I am down. If not, count me out.
We can get together and eat ribs and baked beans any time of the year. None of us need a “holiday” for that.
High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America. Dir. Yoruba Richen. Perf. Trail Boss, Northeastern Trail Riders, Fresno, TX Anthony Bruno. 2021. Netflix.
High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America. Dir. Yoruba Richen. Perf. Founder, The Black Cowboys Museum, Rosenberg, TX Larry Callies. 2021. Netflix.