Understanding Juneteenth: Celebrating African American Liberation
Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, is a holiday celebrated on June 19th every year to commemorate the end of legal slavery in the United States. It all began in 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, informing the last remaining enslaved African Americans of their freedom, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Today, Juneteenth is a day of celebration, reflection, and commemoration.
Honoring the holiday
Growing up, Juneteenth was not a holiday that was widely recognized or celebrated by anyone outside of the Black American community. As I grew up and learned more about the history of human trafficking in the United States and abuse that my ancestors survived, Juneteenth was a day of remembrance, reflection, and gratitude for their survival. While celebrating the holiday has always had a festive air, at its base it was a remembrance of those ancestors. It was a celebration of their resilience and strength, and a call to honor their legacy.
Now that Juneteenth is a recognized federal holiday, as with any cultural celebration, well-intentioned individuals who are not part of the community can sometimes miss the mark when attempting to participate. It’s no different than not knowing how to behave respectfully at an acquaintance’s funeral service. It may feel natural to want in on the festivities but there are certain boundaries that need to be observed out of respect. Memorials, for example, are a time to celebrate and honor the life of a lost loved one. They are often punctuated with moments of laughter, but they are also filled with an atmosphere of respect. Making light of or trying to monetize a family’s memorial service would be considered outrageously disrespectful. Instead, it’s a common practice among non-family members to provide tangible resources and help create appropriate emotional space for families going through grief. This same level of sensitivity is necessary when celebrating Juneteenth.
Here are some ideas for how to celebrate regardless of your ancestry.
Celebrating Juneteenth as an African American
As an African American, celebrating Juneteenth is a way to honor your heritage and reflect on both the struggles and accomplishments of your ancestors.
Honor the pursuit of freedom
Celebrate your ancestral legacy of courage, resilience, and determination in the fight for freedom and equality. Contemplate how to carry on this legacy by continuing to advocate for justice at home and in the world. Read books, listen to podcasts, or watch online documentaries that tell the story of the African American fight for freedom. Reflect on intersectional struggles for freedom and liberation that persist today.
Attend parades, festivals or community events
Various intergenerational parades, festivals, and other community events are held annually in celebration of Juneteenth, complete with educational activities, music, food and more. Celebrate your heritage in the ways that feel most nourishing to you.
Prepare African American cuisine
One of the best ways to celebrate Juneteenth is by preparing cuisine influenced by traditional West African cuisine. Add a dish or two to your table that your ancestors would have recognized.
Celebrating Juneteenth as a non-African American
While Juneteenth is rooted in African American history, it’s still vital for non-African Americans to participate in the celebrations in a meaningful and respectful way. Here are some ways to celebrate Juneteenth while respecting the holiday’s cultural significance:
Educate yourself and engage with African American culture
Take the time to learn more about the history of Juneteenth, why it’s celebrated, how the pursuit of freedom has looked for Black America over time. Watch documentaries, read books and listen to music directed at African Americans and intercultural audiences. This will enhance your understanding of the holiday and how historical events have shaped Black American society. Check out African American cultural exhibitions and other community events in your local area.
Support African American businesses
Supporting African American businesses is a great way to take part in Juneteenth celebrations. Make an intentional decision to visit Black businesses in your community or online throughout the year.
Amplify Black voices
It’s crucial to recognize the continued struggles that Black people face in the pursuit of social justice and to actively work to amplify their voices. Listen to Black creators and support Black-led social justice organizations.
Juneteenth is personal to me and my heritage. It is a day that symbolizes hope, freedom, and the power of perseverance against unimaginable adversity. Whether you’re African American or not, there’s a place for you in Juneteenth celebrations. It’s up to you to make your celebration meaningful and respectful. Juneteenth is not just another festive day on the calendar, it’s a day of remembrance. Acknowledging that the fight for true equality and justice is far from over. It’s a time for all of us to reflect on the progress made and recommit ourselves to continuing the fight for true equality and justice for all, irrespective of our race, gender, or beliefs.