Writer Pamela Edwards reflects on the holiday and envisions where it may take us all next.
– PAMELA EDWARDS CHRISTIANI
On June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas, Union Army Major General Gordan Granger read from General Order No.3, which included a most significant sentence: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
Although slavery had been officially outlawed nearly three years prior, there was, naturally, resistance throughout the slave states. The Civil War had ended in May of 1865, but there was hostility and violence amongst disgruntled confederate soldiers and white southerners. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 initiated a new era in American history. But, enforcement of the proclamation was often required by Union troops. General Granger and his Union soldiers were sent to Texas to restore order as well as to remind some, and inform others for the first time, that slavery was over.
Juneteenth commemorates this day in 1865. It was initially referred to as Emancipation Day and throughout the years has also been termed Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, and Liberation Day. It’s an occasion to both recognize the history of slavery as well as the initiation (if only ceremonial) of our nation’s ongoing march towards wholeness.
I was born and raised in Virginia. Growing up, I was fortunate to have been made aware, early on and consistently, about African-American history in the U.S. — especially the civil-rights movement. But I only learned about Juneteenth as a young adult.
My grandfather’s birthday happens to be on June 19th. He was born in 1901 and lived well into his 90s. He was a self-made man and a college graduate who survived the Jim Crow South. He later worked as a faculty member at his alma mater, Virginia State College (now University) and raised — along with my grandmother — three happy, healthy, and well-educated children. Celebrating his “born day” throughout the years was, in fact, honoring African American freedom. He was the promise of Juneteenth, and I’m thrilled to merge my personal memories with my ancestral history that surrounds this day.
So, what does a Juneteenth celebration look like? Juneteenth traditions have included the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation aloud, acknowledgment of ancestors, choral singing, and athletic competitions from baseball to rodeos. The fêtes are communal by nature: barbecues and social gatherings, sometimes with parades or brass bands, and often in public parks. Traditional Black Southern cuisine is also key, including the “Juneteenth Trinity” of barbeque, red soda, and watermelon. (FYI: Red foods and beverages symbolize the blood shed by African Americans in their struggle for freedom.)
Now, and for all of us, the significance of Juneteenth has become increasingly topical — and poignant. The African American struggle for freedom still endures, alongside countless other marginalized groups that have experienced the uglier sides of our country. In the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (and countless others), many Americans have been demanding systemic change, more than ever. In summer 2020, Grammy-Award winning producer and singer Pharrell Williams (along with a slew of notable names including Van Jones and Kenya Barris) joined the public movement proposing to make Juneteenth a national paid holiday — which officially passed in the Senate this summer, and is en route to the house.
“As Americans, we love and we appreciate Independence Day, but when July 4, 1776 took place, the only ones that were free from the British monarchy were our white brothers,” said Williams in a summer 2020 interview with CBS. “The white sisters couldn’t vote, Native Americans were not free, and certainly African Americans didn’t have freedom.” (The celebrity quartet is currently working with Global Citizen to help galvanize companies and state governments to recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday.)
Before I wrote this piece, I picked up On Juneteenth, a new book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Harvard professor, and Texas native Annette Gordan-Reed. (It’s a quick, smart read, a must-have for anyone truly interested American history, and particularly Juneteenth.)
Europeans brought hope and discovery to this land, along with cultural and generational devastation to Native Americans and enslaved Africans. It’s all part of the story: you can’t extricate negative aspects from the positive. It all happened here. It’s an all-American history. (And, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”)
Moving forward, beyond the hatred of racism and oppression, requires acknowledgment and acceptance of the past that shapes the present. White police are still shooting and killing unarmed Black people throughout the country, with very little consequence. Why is that? Really, Why. Is. That?
Juneteenth is symbolic. It’s a gesture of remembrance, acknowledgement of toil, and appreciation of freedom. Black folks are still holding onto the promise of liberty and justice for all. Our future as a democracy depends on whether the majority of Americans believe in that same promise. We can all celebrate Juneteenth by simply committing to the pursuit of justice and freedom, for all. That can look like a lot of things, from community celebrations and charity donations to writing to your congressperson about transgressions against justice — from voter and education suppression to gerrymandering and inequitable access, to public services and rights we’re all entitled to enjoy.
Because we will never be the land of the free, until all of us are free.