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Being present for the first Juneteenth federal holiday

June 1, 2022

June 19th, 2022 will be the first year that many people will receive the day off in honor of Juneteenth, commemorating the day that enslaved people in Galveston, TX learned slavery had been abolished. They’d toiled in the hot sun for years under chattel slavery, and this year we will celebrate their freedom by taking a paid day off from our comfortable jobs that provide us benefits. The symbolism is not lost on us; for Black folks, this holiday is both a party and a protest.

Just because the physical chains were removed, freedom papers were signed, and names were chosen and changed by newly freedmen and freedwomen, the journey to this moment today has been long for African Americans. Only just this past March did President Biden sign into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a federal crime. Hardly a milestone in the 21st Century, it was only after trying to pass similar laws at least 200 other times did it make it to the desk of the White House. During the month of May this year, ten Black individuals – most of whom were elders – were murdered in a modern-day lynching in Buffalo, New York.

The killer is a self-described white supremacist, and in 2022, lynching has only evolved. White supremacist theories and communities are rampant online, and the weapons used today are even more aggressive. Our current society leaves room and gives permission to others to intimidate us, harass us, and keep us in fear. Is that freedom? Juneteenth being made a federal holiday has brought up complicated feelings for those of us who are descendants of enslaved peoples. It’s bittersweet. We ask other Black folks how they will spend the day, wondering if we should be grieving or dancing. Already we are seeing how companies are capitalizing on the holiday, selling merchandise and using the colors, and certainly these profits aren’t going to Black people. African Americans still live in a country where our independence is not fully honored. We think about what Juneteenth truly means to non-Black people. We want non-Black Americans to understand that it needs to be celebrated with the same fervor and pride as the Fourth of July.

It is difficult for us to imagine the feelings of the enslaved people in Galveston when they were told that not only were they free, but they had legally been free for at least two years. No amount of time could be given back to them, and no holiday can repair the damage. We ask that our fellow African American relatives rest without guilt on this day, to honor our ancestors who did not have that choice. We ask that our non-Black allies take initiative in educating themselves and other non-Black people on the struggles of African Americans both historically and today. Juneteenth without radical change is simply performance.

Written by the Neighborhood House Unapologetically Black Affinity Group