Why Juneteenth Is Just As Important As July 4th

I work with an after school program in the heart of the South Bronx. Everyday, I not only see the limitations of the Brown v. Board of Education in desegregating public schools, but I see a school that lacks the resources to adequately provide services to a student body that is crippled by the community that surrounds them. A racially segregated public school, with the demographic as mostly black and hispanic students; some of the most witty, introspective, and kind scholars I could ever meet.

During one of our deep conversations about Lil Yatchy, fidget spinners, and the importance of color coordination within friend groups, a scholar & I spoke freely on the cafeteria line during supper. There were obvious barriers between us — I am his supervisor, an adult, who is “cool” but not that “cool” because I won’t go to the store to buy him “Taki’s” or platano chips. I am a college graduate, who always ends most conversations with “…I really want you to seriously think about going to college… or at least chase your dreams.” (Most students have expressed that they don’t have anyone in their lives who set such futuristic expectations.) But that’s besides the point, I think during this specific conversation, we were talking about DJ Khaled while he showed me a trick on his decked-out fidget spinner. Multitasking.

Someway, somehow, I make it a point to make every conversation educational experience. I began to explain to the scholar that a special holiday Juneteenth was coming up. Not only was it hard for him to pronounce the word, it was evident that it was a word that they haven’t heard before. “Mr, what is ‘June-tint??’” — (I kid you not, that’s exactly the response I got). Moments went by and I realized that this scholar, and probably most other scholars in this after-school program, have not heard about this day and consequently, don’t know it’s significance.

I was deeply saddened. Such stories of freedom could be uplifting these students, but instead are washed away and replaced with frivolous counts of Columbus’ great escapades and King James Queen Elizabeth, and George W. Bush in Social Studies. They were not being taught their own history.

So — what is Juneteenth and why is it significant?

On January 31, 1856, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States on a federal level. The amendment did not get ratified until on December 6. On June 19th, then Texas’ General Gordon Granger proclaimed in his General Order Number 3:

In accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.

It doesn’t take an American history aficionado to understand the significance of this: it marked an end to one of the most brutally traumatic and devastating periods of slavery known in human history. Not only that, it put the “United” in United States of America. The fight between states rights, a major threat to the establishment of this nation, took a bit of a turn as the South’s team captain Texas aligned with federal law. The issue of slavery was such a divisive matter, millions died during the Civil War in part because of it. The roll out of this decision was not immediate and of course it got major pushback by the economic backers of slavery and the idealists that believed in the inherent inferiority of brown people, it took quite some time before the legal system of slavery was actually abolished. However, July 19, 1865 was a pivotal moment in American history and further shaped the course of it. Texas’ compliance paved the way for more sensible dialogue between the North and the South and furthermore the formation of a United States. Thanks, black people.

This goes to show that black emancipation has always been good for the United States. You would think the “powers that be” would acknowledge this.

Due to the melding of June and Nineteenth, the word is hard to pronounce. The 7th grade scholar instinctively kicked into slow motion and Juuuunnn-eee-teeeennthhhh until the word was fully comprehended. (That took 20 seconds of my life that I would never get back.) I explained,

Why should we celebrate?

For without the end of slavery, the great country now known as the United States of America would not have been possible.

  1. The Juneteenth celebration symbolizes the joy of freedom.

2. It gives us a chance to explore truths about America and the African American slave experience.

3. It proclaims to nation of the world that prioritizing human rights is not only the right thing to do but is also good for the country.

4. It shows that the emancipation of black people was great for The American union and will continue to be.

Who should celebrate?

The scholar, a proud Dominican, exclaimed, “But I’m not black!” I held myself back from talking about intersectionality and kept is short. “Everyone should celebrate it.” You don’t have to be African-American to join in celebrating the anniversary of the end of slavery. Slavery is a terrible thing. Many people of all skin colors fought tirelessly to end it, and their efforts should not go unnoticed. I finished my rant by explaining that the end of slavery was the beginning of togetherness.

At this point he was sitting down at the lunch table. He proceeded to look at his food suspiciously. Thoroughly unimpressed, he stuffed his spinner in his pocket, opened his chocolate milk and gave a huge sigh before gulping.