Last year, I must have hung out on that spacious front porch in East Oak Lane for hours, relaxing and talking to people about everything from politics to their extensive travels throughout Africa.
As we chatted, the smell of soul food cooking in the kitchen wafted in our direction. It was a wet and rainy afternoon, which seemed apropos for celebrating such a bittersweet commemoration.
Days earlier, President Joe Biden had signed legislation establishing “Juneteenth” as a national holiday to mark the end of slavery in the United States. Officially, the Emancipation Proclamation had freed enslaved Africans in 1863, but those working on plantations in Galveston, Texas, didn’t hear about it until June 19, 1865.
That date became a day of celebration, albeit quietly at first, so as not to inflame former slaveholders. Juneteenth — which is a blend of June and 19th — has evolved into a day to reflect on America’s original sin and celebrate the end of the ugliest chapter in our history.
America traces its independence to July 4, 1776, but for African Americans, freedom didn’t arrive until nearly a century later.
“We’ve been through so much as a country,” P.J. Thomas, editor-in-chief of Pathfinders Travel magazine, told our gathering last year as we stood around her dining-room table on our nation’s first official Juneteenth holiday. “This day just celebrates how much we’ve been through as a people.”
I bowed my head as her husband, Weller Thomas, the magazine’s co-publisher, said grace. In that moment, I tried not to think about this country’s 200 years of chattel slavery, and the gross injustice that had been enacted on the poor humans dragged to the Americas against their will and into forced labor.
I didn’t think about the dubious motivations behind certain lawmakers who saw to it that the bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday passed swiftly through both houses of Congress, when what Americans needed more than another holiday was meaningful voting-rights legislation. It says something about Sens. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), Josh Hawley (R., Mo.), and Tim Scott (R., S.C.) that they supported making Juneteenth a national holiday instead of legislation that would move the needle in terms of police reform, such as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
Instead, I tried to be positive. I felt grateful to be among friends again after so much pandemic-imposed isolation. I greatly enjoyed my first Juneteenth celebration and look forward to commemorating it annually going forward. This year, it happens to fall on Father’s Day, which is convenient.
It’s going to take a moment for many of us to develop our own traditions around such a bittersweet day, which commemorates both freedom and the untold lives that were lost and the families destroyed in bondage.
But it shouldn’t be with crass merchandise, such as Walmart’s Celebration Edition: Juneteenth-themed ice cream. Store officials have since recalled the product, but not before activists on social media complained about the language on the packaging’s red, green, and black colors, which have long been associated with Pan-Africanism. “Share and celebrate African-American culture, emancipation, and enduring hope,” it says on the container, which also features two brown hands as they high-five each other.
Look, I get it. This is America and that’s what we do here. We already have annual cringe-inducing sales timed around the holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Tacky Juneteenth products are inevitable. But just because stores sell it, doesn’t mean we have to purchase it.
Stay woke, people. We need to let corporations know that if they want to capitalize off of Juneteenth, they need to do so in a culturally sensitive way. Don’t come at us with red, black, and green paper party products saying “It’s the freedom for me” if they haven’t also partnered with Black-owned businesses, hired diverse upper management, and begun paying low-level employees enough so they don’t have to depend on government subsidies to survive.
“This is a unifying moment for our country,” said the Rev. Marshall Mitchell of Salem Baptist, which will hold a free Juneteenth celebration on its campus in Abington on June 18. “I think it has to be a sacred moment for African Americans to recalibrate our economic, our social, and our political success. ... It should be a catalyzing opportunity.”
He added: “This holiday should be about action and should be about immediate steps to realize freedom in the American republic.”
In other words, Juneteenth is bigger than just another backyard barbecue where people sip red drinks and set off fireworks. It’s sacred. We need to treat it as such.