The whitewashing of Juneteenth…Why?

During our summer of racial unrest, back when folks were clearly scared that the angry Black masses were going to burn down the world, President Biden—in what increasingly feels like an attempt to both pander to and appease Black folks—decided to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. 

I’m sure this seemed like a great idea at the time. In theory, a federal holiday to honor something so racially important sounds right.

But like many “good” ideas when it comes to race relations in this country, I am not sure that anyone really thought this one through.

For one thing, you have to consider that the origins of Juneteenth are unique. While the Emancipation Proclamation theoretically freed all enslaved Africans in 1863, freedom would not come until two years later for the enslaved folks in Texas. That is, when Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay on June 19 to occupy the last of the unoccupied rebel states. That was the first time those roughly 250,000 Black people had heard of any kind of freedom, much less got it. And that day came to be known as Juneteenth by the newly freed. 

While Juneteenth has long been celebrated by Black folks in Texas and in certain segments of the Black community, it was not always a universal holiday. Even though it is considered by some to be Independence Day for Black folks, it hasn’t even necessarily been a universal Black celebration.

So, it becoming a federal holiday has become interesting as more communities seek to embrace it. 

This kind of begs the question: How do you celebrate it? In the past several years since becoming a federal holiday, we have most certainly seen capitalism try to grab hold of Juneteenth as a day to celebrate, by selling us questionable items. Juneteenth ice cream, anyone? No thanks. (And yes, that actually happened last year at Walmart.)

In recent months, many communities have attempted to put a multicultural spin on Juneteenth. While that may sound nice, in taking a distinctly Black American tradition and putting a multiracial twist on it, we take away from Black American history. It actually dilutes the day and its meaning.

Of course, in a country that likes any warm-weather celebration, I can see why there would be an urge to whitewash a celebratory day specific to non-white people. Does Cinco de Mayo ring any bells? It is supposed to commemorate the Battle of Puebla where the Mexican army defeated the French on May 5, 1862. How do $5 margaritas fit into this theme? Yet, as long as I can remember, Cinco de Mayo has been marketed as a day for non-Mexicans to wear tacky sombreros, drink lots of alcohol and eat tacos. 

Of course for some people, Juneteenth is now considered a day to learn. But what exactly does one do with that education? While I want white people to learn, increasingly I am more concerned with what one does with the knowledge they gain.

For many white-bodied people, learning ends up being a form of cultural tourism and voyeurism. They stop at learning, feeling like they understand, and they think their personal enrichment is enough in itself.

That increasingly annoys me. The white people who are inclined to want to learn also need to balance out that learning with reflecting on what it means for them as white people, altering their own behaviors, teaching others, and changing systems.

Just a few items on the list to start: How is their white history connected to the harm that has been inflicted on Black folks and other people of color? How have they or their ancestors benefitted and how do those benefits continue to accrue to them? What are the conversations they are having with other white people after this learning?

In other words, the learning cannot be in a vacuum. Otherwise, what value does that education actually have? 

As for creating multicultural Juneteenth events, how does that honor the Black people of Galveston Bay and their descendents? In an anti-Black world where even people of color can be fully anti-Black, how are we uplifting Blackness when it is already distorted and diluted in so many ways? How do we honor the descendents of enslaved Africans when we smoosh everyone together into a vat of multicultural stew? 

I am not saying that we shouldn’t celebrate Juneteenth, but in a country that still owes my people reparations—as a direct descendent of enslaved Africans—I feel we need to be very thoughtful about how we celebrate Juneteenth. It is a time both for celebration and reflection where we uplift Black Americans; where we honor the independence of Black Americans and the ongoing struggle for liberation. 

As for me, I am celebrating Juneteenth by speaking to a group of women in prison, where I will explore themes of liberation and freedom.  What will you be doing for Juneteenth? How will you be lifting up Black folks? If your Juneteenth is not centering Black folks, why not? Those are just a few things to think about, if you’re thinking about the day at all.

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Image by Tim Mossholder via Unsplash