Juneteenth – Liberation Takes a Holiday

“What do you mean there’s no Juneteenth Festival here?”

Like ignoring Daylight Savings Time and Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it seemed like Arizona was on its own page once again. Growing up with festivals that celebrated African African Heritage such as Juneteenth and Umoja Festivals in the Hampton Roads area of VA, I was under the impression that other places in the country had similar celebrations. But, no one knew a thing about Juneteenth in Tucson where I was stationed in the Air Force. At first I just thought it was just Arizona who didn’t get the memo. After all, a state that just decides not to do Daylight Savings Time with the rest of the country might just ignore whatever they want. But traveling outside of my community with the military soon showed me otherwise. Because to my surprise, even many Black folks had never heard of Juneteenth.

Despite being acknowledged in 47 states at this point, until last year, it had been so long since I’ve been to a Juneteenth Festival or heard anyone outside of where I grew up talk about it, that I started thinking that it was just a Hampton Roads thing. But now all of a sudden, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests, it’s everywhere. In fact, unless you’re living under a rock (which you probably aren’t if you’re reading this), you know that this once obscure celebration, that apparently very few people outside some African American enclaves cared about, is now a National holiday. And the truth is I’m ambivalent about it.

First off, let me say that I’m not really a holiday person in the first place. It started with my parents breaking up on Christmas and I pretty much curmudgeoned from there as I started to witness that most holidays result in public pressure and spending way more money than is necessary. Besides, when I was more of literalist Christian, I came to see Galatians 4:8-11 as having my back on not being into special days. So for years, I didn’t even get why people of faith were into them at all. So much so that some of my friends thought I was a Jehovah’s Witness. But, having children and realizing that how people mark time has a profound cultural impact on most folks, I started reframing holidays a bit. For example, my favorite holiday now is Martin Luther King Jr. Day because of what Dr. King stood for and because when this holiday arrives, the calendar gets people talking. For the most part, that is my approach to Juneteenth.

I can’t lie and say that I don’t understand why some Black folks are not impressed with the new recognition of this holiday. For those of us who knew about and cared about Juneteenth for decades, getting national acceptance can feel a little bit like a day late and a dollar short. With so much that still needs to be done to address the historic inequities in this society, getting a national holiday might feel like putting gift wrap on a garbage can.

But last year, when some Republicans first proposed replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth, I had a sense that it was going to happen anyway. And I was wondering if rather than being something that brought pride to Black people, it might turn out to be like when a quaint island community suddenly becomes a tourist destination. It basically ruins a good thing for the people of the founding community.

That being said, after watching the presentation below created by some of my neighbors in Boulder County, I am hoping that Juneteenth actually lives up to its potential. Of course, I can imagine that the festivals I grew with will change with the new interest. It will no longer be a Black holiday but rather a holiday that belongs to the Nation. So it is my hope that with this new recognition, Americans will use it as Mrs. Opal Lee, the grandmother of Juneteenth invites us to instead of it becoming just another day off from work, an opportunity to be racial voyeurs for some, and a marketing tactic.

If you’re reading this and would like this celebration to be something that helps heal this nation, I invite you to start by watching this video and hearing from Mrs. Opal Lee and then look for opportunities in your community to “Let Freedom Ring”.

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