Junetine has been part of my family tradition for as long as anyone can remember.
It marks the day in 1865 – June 19, nearly two and a half years after some of the last slaves in the United States, Texas issued the Declaration of Emancipation.
My mother remembers going to the juneite rituals of her childhood in the 1950s, where some men played baseball and others played guitars and harps, where women would arrive with their own picnic spreads, fried chicken and fresh baked rolls with their uncle. As a goat barbecue.
She recently told me that she was excited to have “a good blouse and starch and an ironed skirt and socks and sandals.” Most of those skirts are made from feed bags. “That was our dress-up day,” she said.
By the time I arrived, the excitement was dead. We remembered and marked the day, but without much celebration.
As author Joyce King wrote in The Dallas Morning News in 2017, some black people have come to associate the holiday with stigma: “Some blacks hate Junetine. To them, this means celebrating the fact that the news of independence is too late.
Last year, in the wake of George Floyd’s assassination the previous summer, Junetein was made a federal holiday, and I must say, I feel proud to be honored one day on black history. The tremor that the day loses its cultural power and falls victim to commercialization.
Perhaps it is, at some level, indispensable with federal holidays. Sure enough, this year the stores have sold all kinds of Juneteenth tchotchkes. Seeing them, Mama joked, “Don’t do this ghetto; Keep it holy. The crown of metallic tincture Juneteenth at Walmart really stuck in my craw.
Judging by the comments I have seen online and my recent conversations with other black people, I am far from the only person who worries about the commercialization and decline of the day by scaling up for a federal holiday. But on further reflection, I think there is a wrong way to think about it. We need to think less about making the day a federal holiday, and more about what it allows, when we do so and focus on black people.
Some people could not celebrate that day because they were out of work. (I often took the day off with respect and tradition, but it cost me a holiday.) Now black people and everyone should be able to get the day off as a paid holiday – and enjoy it.
They can use the day for their education. Last year, when Juneteenth became a federal holiday, more than a quarter of Americans knew nothing about it and “little”, according to Gallup. This year, the percentage of people who know nothing about the holiday has dropped to 11 percent and the little known percentage has dropped to 29 percent.
My family, who have been practicing juneite for generations, are less aware of it. My mother and I went to the same school – decades apart, of course – a black institution that has existed in some form since 1887.
But she remembers no specific classroom instruction on vacation and neither do I. Independently, we both realize that we are. In recent years, with my mother, in November, at the age of 80, the local church has begun to educate its children about the day, using a “little activity book” they bought to teach their children about the holiday. As she put it, “I learned more from that book than I ever knew about Juneteenth.”
After the establishment of Juneteenth as a national holiday, all Americans are taught not only about the day, but also about the legacy of slavery, to question the idea of freedom and to test the imperfections of the liberation order.
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Declaration of Emancipation on January 1, 1863, freeing slaves in seceded states, not states.
But because of the announcement in the middle of the Civil War, only a small number of slaves were immediately released. In fact, at the time, the main purpose of the order could have been a promotional tool. As the National Archives suggests, “it captured the hearts and minds of millions of Americans and fundamentally changed the nature of the war.”
In the Gallup poll, the percentage of people who say they should teach junetein in public schools rose from 49 percent last year to 63 percent this year.
Sure, many will ruin the day. It happens every federal holiday. Sadly, many people now see Memorial Day as a time to cook instead of mourning. But the day gives them space to reflect and honor those who have fallen in battle.
We should look at Junetein in the same way as a federal holiday: to pay attention, but to allow space.