Juneteenth is finally getting some mainstream recognition as a holiday.
Celebrated on June 19, Juneteenth has sometimes been referred to as America’s “second Independence Day.” It was on that day in 1865 when the Union Army belatedly brought word to Galveston, Texas, that slavery had been outlawed, two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Juneteenth celebrations in Black communities have taken the form of parades, pageants, BBQs, fireworks displays and historical readings. It’s a chance to relax with family, patronize Black-owned businesses and share collective histories.
As writer Nicole Taylor wrote in The New York Times recently, “Juneteenth offers an opportunity for black Americans to take a pause under banners of red, green and black [Pan-African colors] and claim some happiness, which can be itself a form of protest, as pleasure is living.”
Many Americans are unaware of Juneteenth’s existence, or its roots, but slowly, that’s beginning to change. After a long push to make Juneteenth a national holiday, the Senate unanimously passed a bill establishing it as such in 2021. On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed the legislation into law, creating the first new federal holiday since 1983, when Ronald Reagan signed Martin Luther King Jr. Day into law.
In the last few years, amid protests against police brutality and institutional racism, a growing number of companies including Nike, Mastercard, JCPenney and Target recognized Juneteenth as a holiday.
Last year, even more companies are getting on board, whether they’re making June 19 a paid holiday, encouraging employees to take the day off or recognizing it as a day of reflection and learning.
Still, many have noted the corporate embrace of Juneteenth reads a tad performative without meaningful change: For starters, they say, companies need to ensure Black employees are paid, hired and promoted at comparable rates as white employees.
“If companies are simply checking boxes on some real or imagined DEI checklist, or looking to appease and convince client bases of their ‘wokeness,’ then this push rings hollow,” said Prudence Layne, an associate professor of English at Elon University in North Carolina and the host of The CoRE: Conversations on Race and Equity.
That said, Layne joked that “if companies are willing to move beyond well-timed statements from their CEOs to advancing for long-term, impactful, structural adjustments to their policies and practices, I’m ready to party!”
Clearly there’s a lot to unpack about Juneteenth: Why weren’t we taught about Juneteenth in school? What are some meaningful ways to celebrate it today?
As the day approaches, we asked a number of Black American educators and activists to share what everyone should know about the holiday and how to celebrate while also acknowledging that we’ve got a long way to go.
Learn about what Juneteenth signifies.
Most of us learned in history class that that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, three years into a bloody civil war that pitted the North against the slave-owning South.
That proclamation brought an end to the legalized institution of slavery in America, but Southern states refused to obey in the orders, and in the small town of Galveston Island, Texas, enslaved Black people never got word of the news at all.
It wasn’t until Gen. Gordon Granger and his band of Union soldiers, who’d been traveling around the country for two years announcing the news, arrived to town that word finally got around. Granger issued the orders that resulted in the freedom of more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in Texas. That’s the historical moment that’s celebrated on Juneteenth.
Go to a Juneteenth celebration.
What does your typical Juneteenth celebration look like? There might be a cookout, with lots of barbecue and red drinks ― red foods are customary for Juneteenth, symbolizing the blood and struggle of Black Americans’ ancestors. There are often fireworks, a parade or a Miss Juneteenth pageant. Other communities host literary festivals with readings and discussion about Juneteenth and what freedom really means in this country.
Whatever happens, it’s usually a good time, said Laura Robbins, the host of the podcast “The Only One In The Room.” Robbins vividly remembers going to her first Juneteenth community event back in 1988.
“I had just moved to Los Angeles and was invited by some of my new friends to the Crenshaw district, where hundreds of Black folks could be found cooking, eating, dancing, selling their art and performing,” she told HuffPost.
“I remembered I tried to take all of it in, marveling at all the shades of ebony, mocha and beige that I saw around me,” Robbins, who’s Black herself, said. “I also wondered out loud, ‘Why have I never heard of Juneteenth before? Why wasn’t I taught about this in school?’”
Going to a community event is the best way to celebrate the holiday and learn more than a listicle like this can teach you. Google to see if your community is holding a celebration.
If you’re staying at home and want to learn virtually, spend some time with “Black History Continued,” a New York Times series which features a ton of fascinating articles (on the power of Black superheroes, for instance, or what it means to be crowned Miss Juneteenth) and interactive experiences.
Surprised at how little you know about Juneteenth? It’s a testament to the short shrift Black history and racial dynamics get in the classroom.
If you haven’t heard about Juneteenth ― or the Tuskegee experiment or the Tulsa race massacre or redlining ― think about everything else you probably don’t know about Black history. Outside of Black History Month, schools tend to under-teach Black history. There’s no national curriculum or set of standards for teaching it in the U.S. and there’s only a handful of states that have laws requiring that it be taught in public schools.
“The Black people in your life have been living off the crumbs in white history books for our entire existence here in America,” Robbins said. “In high school, two chapters might be dedicated to the middle passage. There may be two chapters covering Jim Crow and civil rights. Perhaps as a senior, one might get assigned ‘Othello’ or ‘The Bluest Eye,’ but that’s about it.”
In spite of this, in the last few years, states across the country have moved to ban the teaching of “critical race theory,” which examines the ways race and racism intersect with politics, culture and the law.
As many have noted, it’s a bit ironic that a a wider recognition of Juneteenth is happening as school districts across the nation debate the merits of teaching children about racism. (Not to mention, as an ongoing wave of voter suppression laws targets Black voters and other voters of color specifically.)
“In some ways, it’s ludicrous to be celebrating a holiday about ending slavery, when my people are still suffering the effects from the four-century-old institution,” he said.
On this very complicated Juneteenth, it’s important to think about what we aren’t taught in history class and why that might be, Brown said. As sociologist James W. Loewen wrote in “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong,” “The antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history, but honest and inclusive history.”
Encourage your kids’ schools to recognize and give lessons on Juneteenth.
Check in with your kids’ school and teachers to see if they have any lesson plans for Juneteenth this year, said Rachel Elizabeth Weissler, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology, linguistics and Black studies at University of Oregon.
“If not, see if they can make a plan to include space to talk about it like they do so many other holidays in the United States,” she said. “Make Juneteenth a catalyst for further learning for kids. Take time out of that day to learn another fact or two about African American history.”
Buy from Black-owned businesses.
Where you choose to spend your money has a huge impact on communities. Support a Black-owned small business on Juneteenth, whether it’s a coffee shop down the street or an online merchant you’ve been meaning to buy from anyway. Here, we’ve compiled a guide to shopping Black-owned businesses online, from books and Etsy shops to food and beverage makers.
Working on Juneteenth? Lobby your workplace to make the day a company-wide holiday next year. (Or at least recognize the day.)
If your company isn’t giving you the day off or recognizing Juneteenth, ask your supervisors to try to implement it. Take a page from Isabella Warmbrunn and Kamali Clora, two Wayne State University students who successfully petitioned the college to officially recognize Juneteenth last year.
“We started with a Google form petition and with the support of peers, faculty and community members, it’s now set to be an annual celebration!” Warmbrunn told HuffPost.
Reflect on the meaning of Juneteenth.
Shemariah J. Arki, a professor of pan African studies at Kent State University, suggests spending some time reflecting on the following questions come Juneteenth:
- How do you think Juneteenth and the celebration of Black pride evolved over time?
- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that justice delayed is justice denied. What other ways have emancipation been stalled for Black people in the U.S.?
- Why is joy a critical component of Juneteenth celebrations? How is joy a form of resistance?
- What role does Juneteenth play in the global movement for the liberation of Black lives?
Want more conversation starters? Akri co-created a 21-Day Action Plan: Juneteenth Edition to give people ways to further their understanding of Blackness and liberation.
Reach out to the Black people in your life and ask them what the day means to them.
Days like Juneteenth and awareness months like Pride Month and Hispanic Heritage Month are great opportunities to check in with friends you have in those communities. Ask them what you can do to be a better ally. If they have any plans to go to local events, see if you can tag along.
“Always ask people in your lives to whom these celebrations are important why they’re so important,” Layne said. “Find out why marking these milestones are
so important to others, especially if you generally don’t have diverse representation in your lives.”
If you don’t have any Black friends to reach out to, it’s a pretty solid sign you need to expand your friend circle. (You’re not alone; a 2014 study found that three-quarters of white people don’t have any non-white friends.)
Make your own Juneteenth traditions.
Your Juneteenth celebration doesn’t have to be an all-day event, but try to carve out some time to reflect and celebrate the day: Maybe you’ll make a tradition of heading over to a Juneteenth concert happening in the town over. Or maybe your new tradition is buying some delicious takeout from a local Black business and sitting down with your kids to read some Juneteenth picture books.
The most meaningful celebrations are the ones we play a part in creating ― and this holds true for Juneteenth as well, said Stacie Smith, the communications manager at Reconstruction.us, a for-profit startup that offers live video classes on Black history over Zoom.
“The better the tradition fits your personal interests, the easier it will be to incorporate into your yearly routine,” she said. “As you get into the swing of celebrating, you can always continue to expand your traditions to be bigger and better.”
Figure out how you can be a better ally and advocate the rest of the year.
Aside from learning about the historical significance of Juneteenth, dig a little deeper to find out how you can be a better ally the rest of the year.
Get involved with groups like Showing Up for Racial Justice, a national network of groups and individuals organizing white communities for racial and economic justice.
When instances of police brutality happen in your town or the “critical race theory” conversation dominates your local school board, write op-eds about it. Share links. Take your discontent and concerns to city council meetings and town halls when a story isn’t in the headlines.
“I really think both individuals and institutions should use the day to reflect on how they can make a commitment to elevating Black voices,” said Ronelle Tshiela, a racial justice organizer in Manchester, New Jersey. “Talk to the Black people in your community to see what needs need to be met right at home.”
Juneteenth is a celebration, but we owe it to the people who were forced to build this country to continue the fight for equality, said Mikhaella Norwood, an organizer of a Juneteenth festival in Detroit called “Juneteenth in the D!”
“My group likes to use the quote, ‘None of us are free, till we are all free,’” she said. “This Juneteenth, think of someone who you could advocate for, because your own liberties are tied up with theirs. We are one.”