Learning From and Leaning Into Juneteenth

“Today is Juneteenth. If I had anti-racist education, I would know more about what that actually means.”

So read the sign that my middle-school aged child held two years ago during a town rally for anti-racist education that took place on Juneteenth that year. The poster was my attempt at a cleverly rendered jab condemning the lack of racial justice-oriented curriculum in our local schools. In many communities, 2020 marked the very first time that white people began to care about Juneteenth in a mainstream way.

To say now that it was a fraught year is, of course, an understatement.

These Juneteenth celebrations took place three months into the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and a few weeks after the widely circulated video-recorded murder of George Floyd. They punctuated the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

Following Floyd’s murder, a wave of racial justice-oriented statements and initiatives flooded the public and private sectors throughout the United States. For corporations, colleges and universities, this resulted in a so-called “racial reckoning” that, for the most part, merely translated into issuing statement after statement. For media outlets, this meant publishing reading lists and blog posts rife with anti-racist wisdom and coronating experts on racism based on how many books they sold. For governing bodies, Juneteenth presented an opportunity to do something by finally recognizing what, for many African Americans, had long been a holiday marking the significance of freedom. A year later in 2021, a bill passed to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

What Juneteenth has reaffirmed for me is the importance of centering Black joy, people, activists, creatives, work, art, freedom and all Black everything more than ever.

But two years later, I am still left uneasy by the emergence of these celebrations and question how much fruit they have yielded. Or, to riff off of Frederick Douglass’ iconic speech interrogating the Fourth of July’s meaning for Black people in bondage, I am still left wondering: What does Juneteenth mean to me, to you, to us today?

The fact is that the Juneteenth frenzy never sat well with me. As soon as the public celebrations began to unfurl, I had reservations and critiques. I feared that these grand gestures of solidarity and statements of commitment were no more than vacuous, hollow symbols intended to show that white people finally got it, regardless of whether or not action would follow. From my vantage point, these statements and celebrations looked more like shallow virtue signaling than a deeply rooted, robust commitment to transformational change. One example that emblematizes Juneteenth gone wrong is the Walmart fiasco that surfaced earlier this year. Here we have Juneteenth, another opportunity to profit off of Blackness without investing in dismantling anti-Blackness.

Having recently written a book about my discomfort with how celebrations of Martin Luther King fall into a familiar reductive pattern, I recognized similarities in these Juneteenth celebrations that troubled me. I feared that just like Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month, Juneteenth would become the next obligatory signal of wokeness without work. As a firm believer that wokeness without works is dead, or as someone who feels strongly that statements must be guided by action and resources, the hollow coronation of a newly significant Black holiday frustrated me without end.

It also troubled me because for generations, Black communities have been observing and celebrating Juneteenth without widespread acknowledgement. Which begs the question for whom does Juneteenth matter and how do we interpret this newly minted significance?  

Juneteenth commemorates when the last enslaved people in the United States received the news of emancipation on June 19, 1865. Although the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1862, news of it did not reach Texas until three years later. While the news of freedom reached this final group of enslaved people on that day, freedom itself was ever elusive.

To be clear, that Juneteenth is a sacred celebration of the end of slavery is not lost on me. I am not an African American Texan for whom this tradition dates back to the 19th century. As a child of Haitian immigrants who understands that there is always a cost to Black freedom, I cannot help but ponder what it means to celebrate Black freedom in the midst of so much unfreedom around us all over the world.

I feared that just like Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month, Juneteenth would become the next obligatory signal of wokeness without work.

A Juneteenth Block Party at on June 19, 2021, in West Hollywood, California. (Emma McIntyre / Getty Images)

This year our town has its first community-wide celebration of Juneteenth. Our school curriculum is still not anti-racist. In fact a local election brought into great relief just how appalling the values of antiracism, equity and racial justice are to some people in our town. 

And yet.

And yet my objections to the rampant co-optation and capitalist leveraging of Juneteenth should by no means overshadow a recognition of how beautiful and sacred this holiday has been for African Americans for one and a half centuries. Long before the Walmart attempted to make a Juneteenth ice cream and Target celebrated the holiday, or other corporations decided to recognize Juneteenth, Black people in this country were joyfully and jubilantly celebrating this day in our own way. As a feminist scholar, I uplift and marvel at Black women’s pivotal role in Juneteenth celebration which reminds me that Black women have always been architects of freedom.  

What Juneteenth has reaffirmed for me is the importance of centering Black joy, people, activists, creatives, work, art, freedom and all Black everything more than ever. Rather than focus on the newfound discovery of Juneteenth by some, I am focusing on what the holiday has meant to the people for whom it means the most. That’s why this year, rather than lament how Juneteenth is being co-opted, I am standing in solidarity with my African American siblings, especially Black Texans, to celebrate with unbridled joy.

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Régine Jean-Charles (@reineayiti) is professor of Africana studies and women, gender and sexuality studies at Northeastern University. She is the author of Conflict Bodies: The Politics of Rape Representation in the Francophone Imaginary and A Trumpet of Conscience for the 21st Century: King's Call to Justice.