Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the day when the news of emancipation finally reached the last group of enslaved Black Americans in the United States, was a mystery to me up until five or six years ago. In my numerous social studies classes throughout my school years, slavery in the U.S. was taught on a surface level; the day it was abolished, however, was completely ignored. Despite almost all of my junior high teachers being Black men and women, it took years for me to learn what Juneteenth was and why so many Black communities around the country celebrate it.
Looking back now on why I personally didn’t celebrate it, I’ve realized two things: I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and I didn’t think to seek it out. The disconnect of slavery being centuries ago put a wedge between my interest in learning anything past what school taught me. I don’t remember how I first happened upon the topic of Juneteenth and its history, but I do know that when I found out it was basically just a Blacker, more joyous alternative to the Fourth of July, it resonated with me immediately. “America’s birthday” and the idea of celebrating the “land of the free” was never a big hit with me anyway, a common sentiment shared with many members of the Black community.
The older I’ve gotten, the harder and more lovingly I’ve embraced my culture. Growing up, my interests admittedly skewed more “white,” as I was teased to believe, resulting in playful and sometimes painful jabs from classmates and family members; listening to artists like Britney Spears and having my nose permanently in a book invited ignorant comments — from “oreo” to “white girl” — insinuating that my interests were at odds with my race. Now, in my late twenties, I can appreciate my full spectrum of interests. It took years of self-reflection and building friendships with people of colour who had similar experiences to mentally cement that my Blackness isn’t defined by what TV shows I watch or what music I listen to.
But in recent years, I’ve been finding joy through celebrating my Black identity harder than I ever have. I’m watching shows like Insecure and reruns of Martin, and classic Black films like Poetic Justice and House Party. I’ve gone natural. I moved out of my childhood home and started listening to the music my parents love, like New Edition and Jill Scott. I’m reading more books by Black authors. My “white interests” buried my Black identity somewhere over the years because the dominantly white pop culture I consumed made me feel embarrassed to have other interests. Now that I live on my own and am continuing to discover myself everyday, I decided that wasn’t going to be the case anymore.
As a result, a celebration like Juneteenth is right on my radar. The holiday, however, feels different this year. The beauty of celebrating this day in 2020, like Juneteenth itself, came out of something so ugly.
The current anti-police brutality protests and demonstrations have been dominating front-page news since May 25, the day George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. Floyd was killed by a police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. His life was ended in a slow, cruel scene you’d turn away from in horror if you saw it in a movie. Police brutality in the Black community and systemic racism is not new, but I’ve noticed that George Floyd’s death is striking a different sort of chord online and off. There is a palpable rage in the air, and it’s bursting from every crevice. The protests are lasting weeks, expanding around the globe to different countries and the Black Lives Matter movement is receiving support from communities that didn’t show up for Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, or Tamir Rice.
The world right now is coming together to say Black lives matter — finally. The difference is that this time, I’m hearing it louder than ever. With Juneteenth drawing closer, its history has reentered the mainstream conversation. There is now a push to acknowledge the day slavery ended in this country as a federal holiday, and, as a result, Juneteenth is being discovered for the first time by different communities. Black people who hadn’t delved into its history before are taking the time to do so now — my sister, my cousins, and I among them. There’s a pang of regret that it’s taken me this long to even acknowledge Juneteenth. But I’ll celebrate that I’m here now, celebrating and wanting to do the work of educating myself.
I think of the hope that must have lived in the hearts of those set free in 1865, and the realization that the future held so much promise. I think of how fired up the world is right now, and how that flame has already led to small changes: The power of words when Black journalists speak up about workplace discrimination, major companies taking the initiative to diversify their boards, and small businesses donating the profits of their products to bail funds. Juneteenth is being recognized as a holiday by various companies. Even though there is more work to be done, these changes give me hope.
Hope is ingrained in Black identity. It’s had to be. The slow burn of change is what we have to cling to. This Juneteenth, I’m thinking back to my own ancestors, who were slaves of the American South. I’m celebrating a little harder this year because I, too, want to feel hope for the future. I’m doing that by reading articles and reflections written by my fellow Black writers, making more donations to causes that contribute to bail funds, and signing petitions that support defunding police forces.
As dark as these days have been, I’m choosing to channel that familiar, centuries-old flicker of hope into something productive — this year, and every year to come.