Why We Celebrate Juneteenth
155 years ago, today, Union army general Gordon Granger announced to an audience in Galveston, Texas, that all slaves in Texas were now free. This remarkable event gave birth to Juneteenth, the unofficial holiday many black Americans celebrate to commemorate this historical event. It is important to note that while this proclamation was not responsible for setting the enslaved free (it was the Emancipation Proclamation responsible for officially ending slavery), it is significant, as it represented a changing tide in American history. During this time, Texas was one of the most isolated slave states, with an exceptionally low presence of Union troops. As a result, the Emancipation Proclamation was largely ignored and hardly enforced. The idea that freedom reached even the most resistant and remote places in America during that time inspired the black community in Galveston, Texas, to band together and create a day to look back on for many years to come.
Overtime, Juneteenth has evolved to represent more than the important events that occurred in Galveston, Texas. With the uphill battle ahead of the now freed black Americans across the country, Juneteenth became a representation of the struggles and victories of our history. From the ending of slavery to the civil rights legislation eventually implemented, Juneteenth represents, today, the story of the black community’s fight for freedom.
I still remember the first time I celebrated Juneteenth. My late grandmother made it her business to teach my siblings and me everything there was to know about our cultural traditions. Unlike other major holidays in the US, Juneteenth is usually not taught in school, nor is it widely celebrated. Apart from Texas, most states do not recognize it as a holiday, nor is it recognized as a federal holiday. Because of this, I was unaware of what the holiday was all about. Luckily, my grandmother took me to a Juneteenth celebration around the time I was in middle school to teach me about my history. I remember vividly the smell of sweet bar-b-que in the air and the sound of African beats in my ears. Everywhere I looked, there were beautiful black people rocking afros, wearing African garments, and joyfully greeting strangers like they knew each other in a different life. It was the first time I felt an intensely satisfying pride in my blackness. It was as if there was an unspoken link between everyone there that made us closer than we actually were. It wasn’t until my grandmother explained to me the origin and purpose of the holiday that I realized the proverbial link I felt was our shared struggle as a community and the history that brought us together at a park in Oakland, California, to celebrate our freedom.
As a little girl, that experience was priceless. It helped shape in me a deep sense of belonging and pride. To learn from those that came before me about the resilience and strength of my ancestors helped me stand a little taller, hold my head up a little higher, and fight for my place in this world a little longer.
We are now living in a time where the national conversation is centered around the black experience. People across the nation are eager to learn from black people and are wondering what they can do to amplify black voices. As a proud black woman, I am often asked what one can do to be part of the change we so desperately need to see. My first answer always is: educate yourself. Learn as much as you can about black history and continue to do so even when black culture is not at the forefront of conversation. Learning about Juneteenth and the many historical events that happened on our quest towards liberation is not just black history, it is American history.
Juneteenth is the perfect holiday to reflect on how far the black community has come and how far we need to go. As lovers of freedom, justice, and liberty, we can look back clearly at our history and see how these God-given rights were withheld from black slaves and how because those rights were withheld for so long, we can still see the residue of their effects. Together, we can create a more free, a more just, and a more liberated nation that honors the many black slaves who were refused the opportunity to live freely.