Black Joy—Not Corporate Acknowledgment—Is the Heart of JuneteenthRoundup
tags: African American history, Juneteenth
Kellie Carter Jackson is an assistant professor of Africana studies at Wellesley College, and the author of Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence.
In 2002 I was at the University of Iowa conducting research on the history of Emancipation Day celebrations in the state. I remember at one point being somewhat baffled by what Leslie Schwalm, the professor I was working with, had found: From 1865 to 1963, there were more than 200 Emancipation Day festivities in Iowa alone. I had always thought of the event as a Texas holiday.
While most enslaved people were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation put forth by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, those in Texas weren’t made aware of the decree until 1865. On June 19 of that year, Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that the war was over and the enslaved were now, finally, free. Scholars have debated the many reasons for the two-year delay, but one thing is clear: Black people in almost every state have celebrated June 19, or Juneteenth, for generations.
Historically, Juneteenth has not been widely recognized outside of black communities, and it’s taken some time for the general public to acknowledge the date officially. Over the past 40 years, 47 of 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have come to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or a day of observance, but it’s not yet a federal holiday. And given the current nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism, major corporations such as Nike, Uber, Spotify, and J. C. Penney have designated Juneteenth as a paid holiday. Though holidays, symbols, statues, and flags matter, it will take more than increased recognition of Juneteenth to combat racism. If not followed with substantive change, the relatively recent scramble to acknowledge Juneteenth will just feel like virtue signaling, acts of solidarity that ring hollow.
Whether companies and governments get it right or not, black-led celebrations will remain the heart of Juneteenth. Early events venerated black Civil War veterans and were mainly held in private places that could be shielded from the white gaze. Later ones were marked by reunions, parades, and symbolic foods such as strawberry soda, red beans and rice, red velvet cake, and watermelon (the color red represents the perseverance of black ancestors). Black churches often spearheaded the day’s programming, which could include speeches from children who memorized quotes from their favorite black heroes, or singing of the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Post–World War II commemorations were not complete until someone read the Emancipation Proclamation aloud.
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