How White People Can Celebrate Juneteenth

Emancipation Day celebration, June 19, 1900 on East 24th Street in Austin. Credit: Austin History Center.

Not long after I wrote about the whole “Juneteenth” ice cream nonsense at Walmart, and the attempted trademark by the Balchem corporation CEO Ted Harris, there was the debacle at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis where “Juneteenth Watermelon Salad” was being sold in its food court. But social media quickly clapped back on that centuries old trope and the museum’s three-paragraph apology statement was quickly rendered on their website, with an acknowledgement the salad had been removed.

The statement said: “Our food service provider uses the food and beverage menu to commemorate and raise awareness of holidays like Juneteenth. The team that made this selection included their staff members who based this choice of food on their own family traditions.”

In the end, the museum said: “As we work to create a culture of empowerment and inclusivity, we know there will be stumbles along the way…we have put a significant effort behind sharing the critical and diverse stories of a wide range of individuals. We also have placed a strong emphasis on expanding DEAI initiatives throughout the museum.”

Ideally, their intentions are sincere. (Although they’re not making any additional comments to the press which makes me go, Hmmmm!?) But as Dr. Melina Abdullah — Professor of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles and a Black Lives Matter organizer — noted in her recent Instagram post, while Black folks are celebrating our Freedom Day, white folks need to be working on reparations.

There is a lot of growing up America needs to do around the history of Black Americans. White folks, you can’t keep asking to be invited to the cookout just because you want to come to the party — especially when you don’t understand why we’re hosting it in the first place. Without a reckoning of where we are now, Juneteenth becomes just another way for corporations, organizations, and institutions to co-opt a holiday.

In his 2018 New Yorker article, journalist Jelani Cobb pointed out that “Juneteenth exists in this kind of cultural borderland, acknowledged by African-Americans, scarcely noticed by most whites, because embracing the date requires a willingness to countenance slavery’s legacy in this country.”

Now that Juneteenth is being recognized by people other than Black people for the second year since becoming a national holiday in 2021, there needs to be more willingness to take a hard look at the past which gave rise to the holiday in the first place. (READ: White folks are going to have to stop playing fast, loose, and soft on the African American holocaust.)

One of only 25 copies of the Emancipation Proclamation: Abraham Lincoln’s historic edict that led to outlawing slavery in America. Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

“For enslaved people, that liberation was a lifetime coming,” writes Brandon Byrd for GQ in 2020. “They knew in their bones that they had an innate right to freedom, as did their ancestors, as would their children. They were born into a system of rape and labor enforced by the law, the shotgun, and the whip. They had been torn from their families, sold off to distant lands, and forced to make kin out of strangers. They’d seen their children robbed of their futures, starved of formal education, fed just enough to raise slavery’s next generation. On June 19th, 1865, something new became possible.”

Byrd continues…

The remembrance of that emancipation, the very moment when an unknown future first beckoned, was passed down to subsequent generations. As folklorist William H. Wiggins wrote, Juneteenth was a “red-spot day on the Texas calendar” by the early 20th century. It was “just a second Christmas” in the words of one Black Texan. Every June 19th, families and friends who might as well have been kin gathered in segregated cities and all-Black towns across Texas. Dressed in their Sunday best, they held church services and communal readings of the Emancipation Proclamation. They played baseball and watched rodeos, sang and danced and ate as much red food as they could handle. They gave thanks for freedom and expressed what it meant to be free.

The day was abundant in an era of want. Juneteenth planted firm roots within the racial caste system known as Jim Crow, and it bloomed at the same time as the self-proclaimed sons and daughters of the Confederacy decorated that same Southern landscape with memorials to slavery, thereby planting new seeds of white supremacy. It was a time to reflect on Black progress, but also to remember that the limited version of freedom afforded to African Americans was not what had to be. It was a reenactment of emancipation amid denials that “all slaves were free.”

In her book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson makes the correlations between a caste system, while a global occurrence, and its most violent manifestation in the treatment of American Blacks, noting that “what some people call racism could be seen as merely one manifestation of the degree to which we have internalized the larger American caste system.”

To simplify the concept of her thesis, Wilkerson illustrated it this way to Krista Tippet on a June 2020 episode of On Being: “Our country is like a really old house, she said. “I love old houses. I’ve always lived in old houses. But old houses need a lot of work. And the work is never done.

“And that’s what our country is like. And you may not want to go into that basement, but if you really don’t go into that basement, it’s at your own peril. And I think that whatever you are ignoring is not going to go away. Whatever you’re ignoring is only going to get worse. Whatever you’re ignoring will be there to be reckoned with until you reckon with it. And I think that that’s what we’re called upon to do where we are right now.”

Wilkerson went on to say: “It’s about the caste system, the artificial hierarchy that was put in place before our great-great-great grandparents were alive. It’s something that we’ve inherited. It’s not something that we wanted. If you’re on the beneficiary end of it, you didn’t ask to be on the beneficiary end of it. Certainly, if you’re on the targeted end of it, you certainly didn’t ask to be on that. But this is where we are.”

White folks with privilege, especially those proudly wearing “I’M AN ALLY” badges, cannot continue to sit idle on issues that keeps this history of African Americans in America’s proverbial closet. Holding America to its life, liberty and pursuit of happiness promise means stepping out of your own comfort zone. Pushing for critical race theory in classrooms is a good first move, especially since Juneteenth is essentially Black people’s freedom-ish coming out day.

Still trying to get our 40 acres and a mule. -Graphic from The Society for Human Resource Management, 2020

The federal government has never fully lived up to the 40 acres and a mule deal— its promise to redistribute land after the Civil War and the economic hardship that African Americans suffered as a result. And, writes Devon McCurdy, “it was also a missed opportunity for economic reform that might have allowed Southern blacks to consolidate and hold political gains made during the early years of Reconstruction.”

When you think about the “firsts” still being made in American government, in corporations and in the media; the lack of economic advancement in Black communities — it all starts centuries ago with a unkept promises of an American caste system which continues to treat Black citizens with less than equal regard. It’s unsurprising that we’re seeing the rolling back of civil liberties — voting, abortion rights, affordable housing — while the mass incarcerations of Black, brown and Indigenous people increase; that Black men and women continue to be at or near the bottom of the wage gap adding insult to injury for households run by single Black women, for the poor and undereducated. (And don’t get me started on the bank and corporate bail outs while student loan debt runs amok!)

White supremacy continues to murder us in our schools, our playgrounds, our sanctuaries, our grocery stores; disparities in health care keep us more sick, tired and dying than any our white counterparts. Racial tensions between Black folks and police; economic and social strife have had us marching in the streets for generations, while our communities burn.

Freedom has always come at a cost for Black Americans in the United States — paid in blood. America owes us.

Reparations today won’t look like it might have some 157 years ago. There are some cities like Chicago, Providence, R.I., and Asheville, North Carolina, where officials have proposed measures to begin to address years of what they call injustices in their communities. But more needs to be done — and waiting is no longer an option.

Don’t know how to get started in your community? White People 4 Black Lives can help. WP4BL is a white anti-racist collective and activist project which operates within a national network of white anti-racists called Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) with roots in and acting in alliance with Black Lives Matter: Los Angeles, the Movement 4 Black Lives, and other partners.

Reconciliation demands education and an investment. I realize this issue can be triggering for white folks. But Black folks live alone with these triggers every day.

So, if you want to share in the celebration, you have to be part of the work. There’s more than enough links and book recommendations by super smart folks in this post to get you started. Now, get to it!

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Janice R Littlejohn

Janice R Littlejohn

Career journalist. Writing things I’m passionate about incl. sharing Black women’s stories — and my own. Connect with me at janicelittlejohn.com