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The Complicated Nature of Juneteenth

My personal account as a Black woman from Texas

If you’re anything like me, you roll your eyes whenever you see one of those obligatory holiday posts from companies on social media. Their acknowledgment can seem a bit trite and disingenuous, to state things politely. In the hope of rousing the opposite effect, I want to give a little context about the complicated nature of this newly minted federal holiday from my perspective as a Black woman who also happens to hail from the birthplace of Juneteenth — the great state of Texas.

Historical Context & Ownership
Years ago, not all Black people in the U.S. were aware of (or celebrated) Juneteenth, but the likelihood of awareness (and celebration) was heightened in the South, especially in Texas, for relevant, historic reasons. When President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, freeing slaves, the enslaved in states that were not protected by Union soldiers — who would enforce their freedom — were left to continue suffering hellish, status quo bondage. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865 (two-and-a-half years later) that General Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with Union troops to announce — and enforce — the end of slavery in Texas. The combination of the month: June and the date: 19th, gives us Juneteenth. The first official Juneteenth was celebrated in nearby Houston, my hometown, a year later.

As Black people migrated from the south, some brought this holiday with them along with other Southern customs and traditions. Juneteenth may or may not have made it into history books or homes around the country, but it was heavily lauded in Houston. Given its regional origin, Juneteenth felt like a holiday that belonged to me and my fellow Black Texans, in particular. I was willing to share my precious Juneteenth with other Black people, but I was a little surprised by the minor pang of possessiveness I felt when I learned Juneteenth was becoming a federal holiday. And the timing complicated my feelings further.

Victory or Consolation Prize
Amid a more visible resurgence of racial inequality recently, punctuated by nationwide protests throughout the summer of 2020 — the win that is the federal recognition of Juneteenth felt a bit… patronizing because of the timing alone. But the reality is, Black people have been lobbying for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday for decades, namely Opal Lee, known as the grandmother of Juneteenth. As this holiday approached, I agonized about how to honor it corporately and whether a corporate acknowledgment would be viewed favorably. After I decided on a personal approach, I wondered about the potential backlash my somewhat convoluted standpoint might garner. Ultimately, I decided to move forward with this piece because I knew I wasn’t the only one who struggled with initial feelings of skepticism. And more importantly — voicing varied, diverse outlooks is the pathway to healthy discussions and awareness that can strengthen communities and corporations alike.

There is still much, much more work to do in the name of racial equality, but Juneteenth is certainly worthy of celebration. If you have the good fortune to be off on Juneteenth, use the time to relax, snack on some delicious, juicy, red watermelon, celebrate, and seek out ways to invest in — and hear from — Black communities and colleagues near you. That’s what was suggested in a recent TIME magazine article that took cues from activists who helped make Juneteenth a national holiday. All employees benefit from these positive interactions, which also provide ongoing learning opportunities.

Above all, be sure to remember and reflect on the extra measure of suffering forced upon African Americans in Texas, and the reality of all the work still left for us all to do.

For more information about Juneteenth, visit nmaahc.si.edu/juneteenth and check out this episode of the For Colored Nerds podcast featuring Nicole Taylor, author of Watermelon and Redbirds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations.