On the one hand, I think it’s great that Juneteenth is now a state (at least in Massachusetts) and federal holiday. It celebrates a momentous event: the arrival in Texas of federal troops bearing the news that enslaved African Americans in the states of the defeated Confederacy were now free. (Slavery wasn’t abolished in the entire United States until the 13th Amendment was ratified on Dec. 6, 1865. That wasn’t a slam dunk either, because the U.S. House of Representatives dragged its feet in 1864 until President Lincoln got involved. More about that here.)
On the other hand, it’s now in danger of becoming yet another Monday holiday whose original purpose most people pay little attention to — just another welcome day off. Black Americans have been celebrating it since the 1860s, and nowhere more persistently than in Texas. Here’s hoping white Americans follow their example.
No matter where in the week they actually fall, holidays slide toward the nearest Monday, in order to create the “long weekend.” Juneteenth, June 19th, this year falls on a Sunday, which is already a day of rest in this supposedly secular country — you know, separation of church and state?
Aside: It dawned on me while out walking this morning that “secular” in this country is like “unisex” in clothing. Everyone knows that “unisex” sizes are closely based on men’s sizes but we call them unisex anyway. Likewise “secular” is suffused with Christian conventions and traditions. This is particularly obvious to anyone whose tradition’s day of rest is on Friday or Saturday.
Some jurisdictions are apparently trying to smoosh together Juneteenth and the Fourth of July — you know, use the same red, white & blue bunting for both? I’m afraid they’re trying to downplay or even erase the significance of Juneteenth. Why would I think that? you ask. Because plenty of municipalities and even whole states are working double-time to keep the truths about slavery out of public schools, and it’s pretty much impossible to acknowledge the power of Juneteenth and deny the horrors of slavery at the same time.
However, there is a strong connection to be made between Juneteenth and the Fourth of July, and this June 17 Washington Post op-ed makes it eloquently:
We can’t let Juneteenth become just another holiday or, worse, a holiday for only one segment of the country. We should see it for what it really is: the other half of the Fourth of July. These two holidays, which fall a mere two weeks apart, represent the best of America. One celebrates the Declaration of Independence, which contains what the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass called “saving principles.” The other celebrates America’s journey to live by those principles.
Speaking of that “great abolitionist,” Frederick Douglass, on Saturday morning I again participated in the annual community reading of his great 1852 address “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” It was the first time since before Covid that we readers gathered in the same place at the same time, but as in the last two years, the whole thing was recorded to be broadcast on July 4. When Douglass gave his speech, the North was chafing under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which gave slaveholders the right to pursue their escaped “property” into non-slave states, and the country was heading toward the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which expanded slavery into the western territories and did much to galvanize abolitionist sentiment.
Historian Heather Cox Richardson in her June 18 Letter from an American compares our time, with the revelations and warnings of the January 6 committee, to 1854: “The passage of that law [the Kanas-Nebraska Act] woke up Americans who had not been paying attention, and convinced them to work across old political lines to stop oligarchs from destroying democracy.” May it be so again!
Meanwhile, Martha’s Vineyard has been celebrating Juneteenth with a long weekend’s worth of activities. The selectboard of Oak Bluffs, however, declined to honor the holiday by allowing the Juneteenth flag to fly on the town’s flag pole in Ocean Park Worse, they wouldn’t even put the local NAACP branch on the agenda so it could present its case. This short-sighted decision made the Boston Globe so you can read about it here.
And before I forget, here’s my favorite Juneteenth song: Laura Love’s “Saskatchewan”: