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Juneteenth and Symbolic Progress: The Old is New Again

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

“Juneteenth” in the African-American tradition is a period set aside for festivities that uplift the pride of the African Diaspora and Black people’s ongoing struggle for freedom. The designation “Juneteenth” comes from June 19th, 1865—the date when federal troops carried the message to Galveston, Texas that all enslaved people residing in Confederate States were declared to be legally free of bondage.

This year’s celebration arrives at a moment when the nationwide assault on racial justice has reached its highest pitch, and galvanized right-wing white nationalists into a coordinated and well-funded attack on teaching the truth about our racial past in our schools.

In order to fend off this latest bid to reassert the brutal racial hierarchies of white supremacy, we need to recover the liberatory promise expressed in the original celebrations of Juneteenth. It speaks volumes about our neglect of the narratives of Black liberation that federal lawmakers only recognized Juneteenth as a national holiday last year. Thanks to this long-standing failure to include the day in official rites of civil remembrance, many Americans don’t realize how important Juneteenth is, not only to Black history but also to American history. Standard civic textbook accounts of the struggle for Black freedom report that the slaves were freed on January 1, 1863, with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. But Juneteenth commemorates the truth of the matter: all enslaved people were not truly emancipated throughout the country until two and a half years later. The fact that this truth was actively suppressed from so many enslaved people rings as an historical echo for the many ways in which symbolic advances for Black people continue to mask over continuities that leave our material conditions undisturbed.

Juneteenth celebrations are about more than just food and family for Black Americans. This day is also a sober reminder of the U.S. government’s long-standing compromises and capitulations to the forces of white supremacist rule, and the American state’s role in perpetuating the subordination of Black people. Now with the nation belatedly acknowledging the significance of Juneteenth, this year’s celebration is an opportune time for America to move away from solely symbolic and talismanic invocations of racial progress and meet the present moment of coordinated white backlash with an unwavering commitment against white supremacy.

What must we do as a nation to realize the full freedom and citizenship of America’s Black citizens? Juneteenth should prompt an immediate call to action for state governments to publicly acknowledge the contributions of Black Americans in the building of the nation’s infrastructure and economy. We should also adopt concrete measures to honor those Black activists and other civic leaders who helped the nation realize the written ideals of the Constitution, and give long-overdue recognition to the Black people and other marginalized groups who have fought to transform the United States into a more inclusive democracy while making indelible contributions to our cultural, civic and spiritual life. Obviously, we cannot institute these essential rites of Black remembrance without a robust and ironclad public commitment to teaching the truth of our racial history.

To declare Juneteenth a national holiday that is hastily inscribed on Hallmark cards or crassly commercialized, by contrast, is to ignore the pressing crisis of racial subordination in today’s America and to leave Black Americans once more with the hollow shell of genuine democratic inclusion. To honor the moment of past Black liberation, we must undertake a far-reaching agenda of present-day Black liberation. We must, for starters, roll back the Shelby-era crackdown on voting rights in communities of color. We must follow through on the promise of the racial reckoning of 2020 to institute lasting and meaningful police accountability for Black victims of lethal state violence. We must fight to ensure federal and state governments will reallocate and redistribute resources to Black Americans who continue to live under the consequences of centuries of oppression, exploitation and their contemporary manifestations.

Purely symbolic acknowledgments of racial injustice often seek to purchase the mere surface impression of public racial comity on the cheap. Structural racism continues to disfigure the promise of American democracy in every sphere of life. To ignore this central fact—and indeed to censor, stamp out and ban any mention of structural racism, past and present—is akin to the central injustice at the heart of the original Juneteenth: freeing some but not all enslaved people. Until we have the right to call out the failures of American democracy, we will continue to protect and covet the Black American cultural tradition of Juneteenth, as a tangible reminder of our ancestors’ ceaseless struggles and tenacity in the face of unyielding forces of iniquitous social failures. Let this day be a day of remembrance and celebrations to uplift the hopes and possibilities of the enslaved people who dreamed that we will one day live in a nation where our histories, stories, aspirations, and voices matter in the quest to form a more perfect union.

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