What is the right way to celebrate Juneteenth?

“What are you doing for Juneteenth?”

This is not a question I have ever grown up asking or being asked. But now, a year after it was recognized as a federal holiday, it’s time for all of us to think about how we’re going to respond.

In some ways, it is unbelievable that it took us so long to acknowledge and discuss the monument to such a historic moment in our history. If we as Americans define ourselves today what we are No-That is, ruthless slave-owners and -traders–so shouldn’t we be a little more proactive about celebrating the day we left that dark chapter behind?

As many of us know, it is not that easy. For starters, Juneteenth did not mark the end of enforced, free labor for black people in this country. The history of institutional racism and economic disenfranchisement continued for at least a century, until the Civil Rights Movement through Jim Crow.

But perhaps more important, this holiday is emotionally complicated. It’s a reminder of the day we all moved on, yes, but at a terrible cost. It is bitter as well as hopeful. And for that reason, it is not yet clear what function it serves in our annual constellation of religious, family and national holidays.

To understand what Juneteenth means to us today, we have to understand where it comes from. We can learn from the emotional complexity of this day as we understand its place in its history. Only then can we begin to build a future of Juneteenth that respects our past and present, while looking forward to a better future.

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When Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it had a limited impact on the lives of slaves living in the Union. It was difficult to enforce in many of these states, although Union soldiers (especially black people) attempted to spread the news in the country’s plantations and labor camps. And as Union forces advanced into more and more Confederate states, enslaved people eventually fled along Union lines to find their freedom.

Even after General Lee surrendered in Virginia in April 1865, it was two months before news of liberation reached some states. These included Texas, which had not experienced a significant Union Army presence at any point throughout the war. It was therefore a haven for slaves who fled there to ensure that they maintained control over what they saw as their property.

On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, to ensure that the state would comply with the mandate of the Union. This was the day Texans were finally notified that slavery had ended in their state. At the time, there were about 250,000 slaves living in Texas—this was the final frontier for abolition.

Nevertheless, many slave-owners hid the information and kept black people as slaves until the end of the harvest season. It then took until December 1865 for the government to formally ratify the 13th Amendment, legally abolishing slavery in the United States (“except for punishment for an offense in which the party would be duly convicted”—Jim An important section for the Crow era, in which black people were routinely convicted of absurd, unavoidable crimes and forced to pay fines with their free labor).

But on June 19, many enslaved people in Texas heard the news that the celebration had begun, marking the birth of Juneteenth.

Many formerly enslaved people wasted no time exercising their freedom: they moved north or to other states to find family members and pay jobs. In the ensuing ten years, the period known as Reconstruction, would establish still more schools, run for political office, lobby for equal treatment under the law, and even against former slaveholders. Will also take legal action. It was a dynamic period of experimentation and empowerment for black people as well as many others in the post-war nation.

During this period, many former slaves began commemorating Juneteenth, some returning to Galveston to mark the occasion. The celebrations included all the typical holiday gifts: fine dining, family, games, treats for the kids, and, because this was Texas, the rodeo. It was certainly a day of joy and celebration, but also a day of reflection and education, with elders often brought in to recount their experiences in the pre-Civil War era.

While the history of Juneteenth is more than 150 years old, many of us only heard about it for the first time two years ago.”

But by the early 1900s, Juneteenth’s popularity began to wane. As classroom instruction and textbooks became more widespread, fewer remembered the day as the end of slavery. (That credit would go to the Emancipation Proclamation.) Eventually, the Great Depression and other economic forces made it difficult for many black communities to celebrate a day that was never officially recognized as a holiday. And, of course, the distance from the Civil War and the realities of slavery made it hard for younger generations to connect with the significance of the event.

It was not until the 1960s that Juneteenth became widely celebrated outside Texas (the two biggest being in Minneapolis and Milwaukee). Texas made it a state holiday in 1980, and it has since spread across the United States, thanks to the perseverance of activists. In 2021, it became a federally recognized holiday, requiring all of us to figure out what it will mean for us in the 21st century.

What is Juneteenth today?

The question may sound simple, but it must be asked. While the history of Juneteenth dates back more than 150 years, many of us first heard about it only two years ago, in an outpouring of grief and fury following the killing of George Floyd.

To be completely honest, that includes me. I didn’t grow up talking about the Juneteenth. I didn’t learn about it in school. And I certainly had no parallel for commemorating or commemorating such a profound, integral part of my history as a black man in America.

When I learned about it, I was heading a diversity tech company. Being in a leadership position at Jopwell was somewhat embarrassing – almost embarrassing – and didn’t know how to respond to the task of persuading Juneth.

But I quickly realized that many people were experiencing similar feelings. It wasn’t fair for me to feel ashamed when I was not raised to memorably think about this particular chapter. Like many others in American middle and high schools, I learned about slavery, racism, and the Civil War as difficult and emotionally frightening topics. But no one ever suggested that let alone take a day off on a day it was all considered worth celebrating.

When I finally found out about Juneteenth, I found myself asking a lot of tough questions about how to celebrate something I’d never celebrated before.

First thing’s first: is it really a time for celebration? One would hope, but celebrating it means acknowledging the horrors that preceded and followed. It’s not just an excuse to set off fireworks and indulge in a long weekend like the Fourth of July. This day is much more complicated than that.

Is it a day of contemplation, a day of sincere remembrance and meditation? Again, this sounds sensible, but is somewhat incomplete. As such, Juneteenth may be something like Holocaust Remembrance Day, which honors the victims of the mind-destruction of life at a specific point in history.

But Juneteenth also serves as a reminder of salvation. It points to a moment that not only ended the centuries-long destruction of life, but of the human soul as well. It is therefore beyond remembrance, as it takes into account the resilience and progress of the black community in this country since June 19, 1865.

If we think seriously about how we celebrate, celebrate and take action, we will be able to create new traditions that bring healing and progress on this complex day.”

So maybe it would be better as a day of service? Should we ask ourselves what can we do Doing How can we give back in our communities to this day, or in ways that add to the historical effects of racism and the legacy of slavery? It’s important to think and celebrate, but it’s also important to take action.

The truth is, I think Juneteenth can be all of these things. And as a relatively new holiday (for many of us), it’s important that we ask these questions ahead of time and be proactive about what we’re going to mean by this day.

It will look different in the many different communities that live in this country. But if we think seriously about how we celebrate, celebrate and take action, we will be able to create new traditions that bring healing and progress on this complex day.

A future for Juneteenth

Fortunately, Juneteenth has a rich history from which we can draw inspiration. It has always celebrated freedom and the historic end of slavery, but it also centers black excellence and achievement. It is a day of reflection and remembrance, as well as a time to look to the future.

Keeping this in mind, I thought I would share about the plans I plan to celebrate this year. I will be spending Juneteen time with my wife’s family and will organize a special dinner to mark the occasion. With my two young daughters out there, I want to start a tradition of remembering our own history, but also sharing stories and experiences about how far we have come as black Americans. And as we all share our different experiences at the table, I hope my children learn the value of open dialogue about these difficult topics.

For my larger network, I plan to inspire my friends and colleagues to engage with any content that is educational or meaningful. It can be journalism, fiction, art, or film—anything that helps strengthen our collective understanding of Juneteenth and the history of Black America. 1619 ProjectFor example, there is a source to which I often return for its clarity and accessibility.

Juneteenth is an opportunity for all Americans to reflect on how we reconnect with our history, and how we remember the past critically and truthfully. It is also a time for us to reflect on the present and openly discuss what has changed and what hasn’t. If we’re able to use our mind and heart to these ends on June 19th, we’re doing Juneteenth right.

And of course, finally, Juneteenth is an opportunity to celebrate our strength, especially within the black community. Despite so many obstacles, we have always overcome it. And we will continue to do so. Take a moment to honor that truth and look to our community for reassurance and hope. It is because of our struggle that we find so much strength in each other.

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