America Doesn’t Celebrate Juneteenth
Before the country’s new national celebration means something, it needs this simple fact.
Let me tell you about my experience with Botswana’s 50th birthday.
When I first entered the country for my own research, I happened upon the yearlong celebration of Botswana’s independence. Sure, independence technically happened on the specific day of September 30, 1966, but based on the celebration, it might as well have been a yearlong celebration.
Though back then I hadn’t built as strong of a relationship with the country as I do today, it felt like the whole country was alive. BOT50 was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, there were braais, parties, and pageantry everywhere you looked. I’ve been at some great events, massive and transformational, but I’ve never been through one that felt so long. From the outside, it felt like it would never end: like there was truly a shift in the zeitgeist.
A bit about me for context: I’ve never been a good person to celebrate events. For reasons I’m working through every day, it felt a bit hollow to look forward to a day that I didn’t have any relationship with before I came in. Ask some of my friends — I literally ran away from surprise birthday parties because of the anxiety I felt when people surprised me at one of my favorite restaurants. However, from the outside looking in, it felt a bit different. For these Batswana, this celebration meant something. Maybe it felt like any type of change was possible.
It felt the same when I finally learned about Juneteenth.
I was a grown adult the first time I experienced a Juneteenth celebration. At Morehouse, I connected with Black folks from the South that made the celebration sound like the blackest experience I’ve ever had. From the outside in, however, the event felt like a distant cousin I never got to know. Sure, we held ties and learned about each other during family reunions, but we never had the chance to know the party.
What do I mean by knowing the party? Listen; if you’ve been to any big celebration you know what I mean. If you’ve partied in an Atlanta trap house, in a Chinese club, at San Francisco Pride, there’s an experience you get that words will fail to describe. You know who to trust and who’s out for themselves, you know what to eat and what to drink, and you know the best ways and times to celebrate: to dance, to sing, to remember for the future.
But knowing the party doesn’t only mean experiencing the event. It means feeling — in your bones — the purpose of the event. Every celebration has a reason — a birthday at your mother’s house, a New Orleans funeral, Diwali — they all honor a truly human experience that contributes to the heart and soul of the celebration.
America’s clearly done the same with its other affairs. Memorial Day, Independence Day, Christmas. What makes this different?
What does it mean to know Juneteenth?
How do you celebrate an open wound?
If you’ve been paying attention, many activists and scholars have been noticing why — in today’s era — it’s cultural whiplash that the United States is aiming to celebrate Juneteenth. In the US, the prison industrial complex has evolved slavery as a punitive measure for the punishment of a crime. At this moment, Republicans across the country are fighting as hard as they can to block Critical Race Theory from public schools when it wasn’t even taught there in the first place, and they can’t even describe what it is.
It’s just wild that many of the people who don’t believe slavery ever even existed will now get a day off celebrating its upheaval. Additionally, like so many American holidays, the celebration will likely become sanitized and commodified until its purpose loses all meaning.
This is why I’m asking: what’s the soul of this celebration? Is it to honor, or to obscure? And, if it’s the second, what would we have to obtain, writ large, to give Juneteenth the honor it deserves?
I didn’t mention this before: I’m working through my celebration complex in therapy.
Let me tell you what I’ve learned thus far.
I realized how celebrations that didn’t wrestle with their soul felt like pouring salt in an open wound. It was an affront, a band-aid on a decapitation, and ultimately, a product of the same corruption that renders us sick in the first place. I realized that to be able to celebrate fully, I had to tackle the deep, deep problem I’ve been dealing with for years on end.
I pray that wasn’t the intention of today’s Congress when proposing this bill. I hope they intended to honor an experience that Black folks have been celebrating by themselves for generations on end. But in today’s racial society, it feels less like courage than it does like theatre.
More than that, it feels like an excuse to avoid doing the necessary transformative work of uplifting and securing the futures of Black people in this country. This federal holiday comes without any progress on reparations, ending police violence, closing the racial wealth gap, abolishing the prison industrial complex, ensuring voting rights, or any other measure that would materially and meaningfully improve the lives of Black Americans. It rings hollow and hypocritical and insulting to the heart of this holiday.
To truly celebrate Juneteenth together on a national scale, we have to build actual freedom in this country. Until then, I’ll be learning from the people — my folk in Galveston, Texas, for instance — who have given the celebration a soul.
In the Equity Innovation Studio, we’re always asking ourselves — and our clients — how to find and celebrate the soul in everything. Connect with our team today to see how we can help you celebrate it too.