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Juneteenth: Origins, Purpose, and Meaning

On June 19, 1865, the news of the ending of the Civil War and of slavery had reached

those who were still enslaved in Galveston, Texas. Juneteenth is more than just a celebration – it is a “finally”, an “it’s about time”. It would become a culturally significant day for African Americans across the country, growing in popularity throughout the next several decades. Many people, especially descendants of the former Galveston slaves, would make annual pilgrimages to Galveston as part of the celebration. It has become a day of unapologetic Black joy. However, the day wouldn’t even be officially state-recognized until 1980, with Texas being the first state to observe it as a ceremonial holiday. In 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, formally making it a federal holiday. Only 27 states currently have it established as a paid holiday for state employees.

Although this is indicative of the overall progress in recognizing Black culture, the

intricacies of how slow states have been in validating Juneteenth as an official holiday should not go undiscussed. It is also worth noting that it only became an official federal holiday after increased civil unrest resulting from the murder of George Floyd. As a Black man myself, I’m grateful for perseverance of my ancestors, their generosity in sharing and teaching their culture, and for the historical progress the holiday has made in its legitimacy. Nevertheless, I’d like to identify the federal recognition of Juneteenth as what it ultimately is: a Band-Aid. It does very little to remedy the lasting impacts of slavery, generational trauma, and over two centuries of systemic discrimination; it does even less to address the prevalent and profound sense of frustration and fatigue that Black Americans experience as a result of ongoing racial injustice; and it ultimately does absolutely nothing to attend to all of the ways that systemic oppression is perpetuated by the very institutions that claim to champion Black liberation. The federal recognition of Juneteenth, in my opinion, feels like a team of far too overworked employees being rewarded with a pizza party rather than better wages and a healthier work environment. To be fair, I do not think its intended purpose was to be a solution, so I’ll abstain from being too harsh in my criticism. The point, however, still stands that many of the ongoing racial injustice-related issues that likely contributed to Juneteenth’s federal recognition still negatively impact BIPOCs to this day.

Given these grievances, is it still meaningful to celebrate Juneteenth, regardless of your

race? Absolutely! A respite is always welcome in an ongoing storm. Black liberation and Black joy are intrinsically linked to one another. Juneteenth is a celebration of not just how far we’ve come as a society, but how far we can go. I encourage everyone to use at least a little of the time off they have to engage in gratitude and mindfulness of the freedoms that they enjoy. I also would encourage everyone, especially members of marginalized demographics, to spend a little time educating themselves more about the freedoms that are currently at risk of being taken away. To me, Juneteenth is both a celebration of freedom and a reminder that what ultimately should be a right is often times functionally a privilege. While I appreciate the extra annual holiday and official recognition of Black culture, I hope America’s progress in combatting systemic oppression is more than just throwing a federal pizza party.

If you are feeling overwhelmed with your cultural identity, forms of oppression, justice, and more, reach out for a free consultation today! You are not alone and do not have to be alone in your healing or challenges.

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