The question Why celebrate Juneteenth today? brings into focus the importance of remembering what was and celebrating what is. I posed this question recently to two African-American men whom I’ve known all of my life.
Demond is in his early forties and has lived all of his life on either the East or the West Coast.
“The plight of African Americans in this country has been minimized,” he said.
“We’re not free unless we’re all free … I use the knowledge of Juneteenth to be empowered; knowing that I have opportunities that my forbearers didn’t,” Demond said. “Unfortunately, many young people using all the tech advancement live under the illusion of equality, when we lack equity.”
E. C., who is in his early seventies, marched in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and now teaches history at a private school in Las Vegas.
“After the end of slavery, then came the Black Codes, putting blacks back in their places,” E.C. said. “It is important to understand our history, the struggles and accomplishments in such a short period of time.
“It has been 156 years since the Emancipation Proclamation. But only since the civil rights movement of the 1960s have African Americans truly been free,” E.C. continued. “Celebrating Juneteenth lets us know the barriers to progress. We have been made to feel indifferent about it.”
Juneteenth Celebrations Help Remember and Heal
Juneteenth is a triumphant event worth remembering. It is the celebration of June 19—the day in 1865 when the people of Texas were finally informed (two and a half years after the fact) that any and all enslaved people in the Confederate States were no longer property of their masters.
Celebrations of any kind are about remembering and paying homage to something of significance that has occurred.
While most celebrations center on events that are joyous, such as births, graduations, and marriages, others often pay tribute to the end of a period of conflict, allowing for the beginning of something new and joyous to occur.
Armistice Day—also known as Veterans Day—is one familiar example of this kind of celebration. July 4—Independence Day—is another.
These “end of conflict” celebrations have often served as a bridge in consciousness and an opportunity to heal raw emotions for individuals, families, and nations alike.
While these celebrations can bring up uncomfortable feelings associated with the conflict, it is important that they occur. As the familiar quotation from George Santayana states, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
From a spiritual perspective, until we remember, release, let go, and let God, we will repeat the same lessons again and again.
Understanding Juneteenth’s History
Even though President Abraham Lincoln had issued an executive order, later known as the Emancipation Proclamation, in September of 1862 to be effective January 1, 1863 (the Emancipation Proclamation granted freedom to the slaves in the Confederate States if the States did not return to the Union by January 1, 1863), Texas either had not been aware of the executive order issued by President Lincoln or chose to ignore it.
Therefore, a missive known as General Order 3 was delivered in Galveston, Texas, and read by Major General Gordon Granger of the Union soldiers:
"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor …"
As soon as the affected enslaved people heard the news included in the executive order, their spirits were lifted, and their vision of a better future was set.
Accounts of slaves jumping for joy even before General Granger could complete his reading of the order have been told. Yet some, who feared wrath from their masters, were cautious about this news.
The majority, especially those like my enslaved ancestors, who worked the cotton fields in East Texas, celebrated that day as one of answered prayer. It was a day of liberation and independence. It was Freedom Day.
Freedom, independence, and liberation—the same core values celebrated on July 4—were now being celebrated by former slaves. This special day affirmed the values articulated by the founding fathers either explicitly or implicitly in the Constitution of the United States of America.
The emancipation of enslaved people set the stage for the proposal and ratification of the 13th Amendment, which states that, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
Why We All Celebrate Juneteenth
It matters more than ever that we celebrate Juneteenth because of the evolution in consciousness that it can represent. “The Spirit of Juneteenth,” written by Tom Feelings, expresses so well why we celebrate Juneteenth.
“If this part of our history could be told in such a way that those chains of the past, those shackles that physically bound us together against our wills could, in the telling, become spiritual links that willingly bind us together now and into the future—then that painful Middle Passage could become, ironically, a positive connecting line to all of us whether living inside or outside the continent of Africa …”
The celebration of Juneteenth matters, because our country cannot afford to repeat its past “sins” that generated beliefs, policies, and systems that were and are discriminatory, immoral, and inhumane.
A celebration of the liberation from those beliefs, policies, and systems can help to ensure that we will not repeat them. Just as the parades and picnics of July 4 reminds us of our country’s independence from the oppressive rule of Great Britain, the celebration of Juneteenth evokes our country’s victory over an internal, oppressive, and immoral system that divided it and threatened to destroy it.
Now that we know better, we must continue to do better. We must not fall asleep on the job. We must continue the work of creating a society where all people are appreciated, loved, and respected for who they are rather than for the color of their skin, their disability status, the name of their religion, or the preference of their sexuality. We are one in spirit. We are one humanity.