I'm a big fan of Juneteenth

About ten years ago, I first heard what Juneteenth was online, likely from a post at MetaFilter around the history of Texas. Then maybe five years ago I stumbled onto a Juneteenth celebration at a museum in the midwest. A few years ago, I tweeted that I hoped it’d someday become a national holiday to truly celebrate freedom for everyone, since the Fourth of July didn’t apply to all back in 1776.

I was surprised but happy when President Biden signed it into law quickly a couple years back. I remember being a little kid in the early 1980s, hearing news about a proposed MLK jr. federal holiday, but it seemingly dragged on for years and I still recall Arizona and a few other states refused to recognize it long after.

The best thing about Juneteenth is that it embraces our messy history. Every American milestone in elementary school has a clean simple 30-second summary that never touches on any aspects of what it actually means to apply new laws or how people really behave after a major event. Being a kid in school, I often had follow up questions for my teachers. I wanted to know what really happened after say, a tea revolt, or a major fraud sentencing, or when a new constitutional amendment banning alcohol went into effect. Sure we can memorize dates for a test, but like how did prohibition work in the real world in the wake of those big changes? As an adult I learned Walgreens basically exists today thanks to being an easy place to get bullshit "prescriptions" for medical grade whisky during this era, which saved their business during the great depression.

Juneteenth enshrines the messiness of our past in the title itself. It commemorates June 19th, when Union soldiers traveled to Texas to spread the news that the Civil War ended two months before and slaves were free since the emancipation proclamation was signed two months years previously. Part of it is the reality of the day and age and how news traveled, but also it has to acknowledge the end of slavery wasn’t a clean break that changed things overnight anywhere.

Juneteenth is also like an iceberg. On the surface, it celebrates black freedom but also hints at the errors in the initial application (being off by two months years) and embraces its attempt to right the wrong. But, the more you dive into history around it, the deeper and wider it goes. Freedom is rarely applied equally or quickly. Yes, Reconstruction soon followed but there was so much backlash that just a couple decades later white Americans implemented strategies to try and turn the clock back to pre-war times. Then another 100 years of fighting for civil rights followed and as we all know, we still haven't righted very many wrongs to this day.

I love that it celebrates black freedom and black voices while also acknowledging and embracing our messy past. There's a lot of controversy around reexamining history in these modern times but Juneteenth makes it clear from the get go that a) the US fucked up the rollout of freedom for all slaves and b) it's not really up for discussion if this happened or not.

I also love that it leaves clues for curious kids like I was, about how these types of sweeping changes really spread out, and hopefully entices them to dig deeper into other major milestones and reexamine the clean simple 30-second summary of events they are regularly fed in school.