This past Sunday, June 19th, African Americans across the nation celebrated Juneteeth, a holiday commemorating black freedom from slavery in the United States. This holiday is observed in 45 states across the country, yet it has not been deemed a national holiday by the federal government. Juneteenth celebrates black American independence—perhaps a greater victory than July 4th, since the United States’ promise of liberty and justice for all was threatened by the practice of slavery until the end of the Civil War
A national celebration of Juneteenth would require Americans to re-conceptualize American freedom. While Independence Day celebrations have come to include families of all shades, when one reflects on the historical context of that date, it becomes clear that this was not the moment that we were all set free.
Frederick Douglass discusses the cognitive dissonance that African Americans could feel on Independence Day. At a speech given on July 5, 1852, thirteen years before the end of the Civil War, Douglass told his audience:
“I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.”
Douglass called out the irony in the celebration of national independence on a date when many in the United States were still in bondage. He additionally challenges the very concepts behind Independence Day, proclaiming that there was no such freedom from tyranny, no liberty, no national pride, no equality, no celebration for the slave, who would only understand July 4th fanfare as hypocrisy.
July 4th is not enough. Summer celebrations of independence must include Juneteenth, the day when black slaves in Texas heard the glorious news that they were free. Of course, the Emancipation Proclamation effectively freed slaves in rebelling states two years before June 19th, 1865; yet, many slave owners kept the news from their slaves and barred them from claiming their freedom. This date commemorates the moment those who remained enslaved in Galveston, Texas became aware of their freedom and could truly celebrate in the face of homegrown American tyranny.
While July 4th, 1776 legendarily marks the day the United States became an independent nation, Juneteenth marks the fight that ensured that we would remain one. Placing a national spotlight on Juneteenth will remind Americans of our nation’s sordid past and provide a space for reconciliation and hope for the future. Of course, the black freedom struggle continued long after the end of the Civil War and continues even today; yet, recognition of this holiday would remind Americans that freedom for all is a struggle worth celebrating.
Photo Credits: Flickr, ak_so