Why Juneteenth Should Be A National Holiday in the U.S. (and Canada)

Jun 22, 2020
Written by
Lana Tafere
Photographed by

020 has been a hell of a year. In just over six months, we’ve seen—among what feels like countless other things—bushfires decimate Australia, the UK withdraw from the EU, Trump acquitted by the Senate on both articles of impeachment, and a pandemic taking millions of lives worldwide and plunging the economy into recession. The current cultural moment is one that owes its existence to this perfect storm of world events. The past six months have felt, to many, like watching a ten-car pile-up take place: horrific, yet so fascinating that it’s hard to look away. 

On May 25th, it finally happened: the straw that broke the camel’s back. George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by police who believed he had been using counterfeit bills. The 8 minute, 46-second video captured by a bystander of officer Derek Chauvin pinning Mr. Floyd to the ground with his knee while ignoring his victim’s pleas of “Momma” and “I can’t breathe,” caused an explosion in support for the Black Lives Matter movement. These past few weeks have since been filled with an unprecedented global shift in public opinion on police brutality and racism in America, with calls to defund the police growing in fervor as more and more incidents come to light showing the deep bias and violence inherent in the U.S. policing system.

Since Floyd’s death, the country has erupted in protests calling for the officers involved to be arrested and tried, with many movements calling for serious reform within the policing system. In cases such as that of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman who was revealed to have been gunned down in her own home on March 13th after police issued a no-knock warrant for someone who was already in police custody at the time, the complete incompetence of police has been all too apparent. Calls to completely defund the police and reallocate resources to other, historically underfunded departments have been growing and plans are beginning to take shape.

For many, this has been an uplifting time—one that feels as if it is on the brink of a new age. An age of reparations. An age of healing for Black and Indigenous people of color. An age that feels like a turning point for society as a whole—an opportunity to dismantle the status quo as it was heretofore known and begin again with the unequivocal truth as its foundation. Even huge corporations—who are usually loath to take a stance unless it affects their bottom line—have been voicing their support for the movement and re-examining their role in reinforcing White supremacy and anti-Black racism. Corporate giants such as YouTube, Amazon, Vogue, Starbucks, and Sephora have all shown support and donated to the Black Lives Matter movement, vowing to reexamine their company policies and hire more Black staff. While these corporations have been roundly criticized for what seems like performative allyship at a time when the BLM movement is trending, there has nonetheless been a notable and much-needed shift towards talking about race in the context of capitalism.

In this tumultuous time, a little-known holiday has been catapulted to the forefront of the public mind: June 19th, or Juneteenth, as it is known by those who celebrate it. Juneteenth, a portmanteau combining the words June and nineteenth, is a holiday that began in Texas in 1865 as a celebration of the emancipation of the last slaves in the United States. While Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation into effect in Washington, D.C. in 1863, slaves in Texas—the most remote of the Confederate slave states—did not hear of their own emancipation until two years after the fact, when Union army general Gordon Granger announced the federal orders in Galveston on June 19th, 1865. After hearing of their emancipation, previously enslaved people were left with little to no infrastructure to support themselves and their families, so the Union army was necessary in helping situate them and divvy up resources. The northern soldiers were also needed to protect the previously enslaved from violence from Confederate supporters and former slaveowners who still felt that slavery should have continued. Once the Union army left the South, violence against Blacks continued, with lynchings taking place across America starting in the late 19th century. Nevertheless, Juneteenth was hailed as the de facto date of the end of legal enslavement across America and has since been celebrated by many. So, why are most of us only hearing of it now?

Due to the many pro-Black activists and scholars that have been propelled into the limelight in the past month, we have seen a shift in the kind of dialogue about Black history that we create space for. In this space, the history and celebration of Juneteenth have served as a call to action for those who see this time as the beginning of America’s true reckoning with its evil history. The very nature of the holiday is evidence of the fact that Whites were so reluctant to relinquish their supremacy that they effectively illegally kept slaves for two years rather than set their slaves free as mandated by law. To many, this feels like a foreshadowing of America’s centuries-long battle to avoid facing its past and giving reparations to the formerly enslaved Black Americans on whose backs it was built. To this day, our collective ignorance regarding Juneteenth has been part of a deliberate effort to erase certain aspects of Black history. This is why activists and Black people calling for Juneteenth to be made a national holiday is not only understandable, but long overdue.

Black lives matter. Black love matters. Black joy matters. And Black history in America is inextricable from White supremacy and slavery. White America needs to take a long, hard look at itself and the atrocities that its ancestors committed against Black Americans. In the midst of a national upheaval where confederate monuments are being recognized as the hate symbols they truly are, we need to collectively recognize White America’s wrongdoings. Recognition is the bare minimum needed to begin solving a problem, and this solution has come at the cost of countless Black lives. It is past time that the world begins celebrating Black freedom and giving Black people the space that they need to cultivate joy and love in a space where they don’t have to fear for their lives because of the color of their skin. 

While America has been at the forefront of accusations of racial bias, its neighbor to the north is no less culpable. Canada has a long and troubled history of White colonialism and horrific atrocities against its indigenous and Black communities. Make no mistake—White supremacy is a plague that affects every nation. The colony of New France—the first major settlement in Canada—practiced chattel slavery and indentured servitude, and also participated in the transatlantic slave trade throughout the 1600s and into the 19th century. The present-day ramifications of slavery in Canada are also evident, with inflated numbers of Black and indigenous citizens incarcerated and murdered, and a booming marijuana industry that is hostile to Black businesses while profiting off their labor, among other disparities in wealth and overall quality of life.

Northern America has long shied away from its dark past, preferring instead to congratulate itself on slow, creeping progress that has little to no lasting positive impact on the lives of Black Americans and people of color. It is past time for the bittersweet history of Juneteenth to be recognized and nationally celebrated. It is a long way from where we want to be but bringing Black history to light can only help us on our way forward.

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