By Patrick Washington,
Word in Black
The Texas-birthed holiday of Juneteenth is a very interesting holiday, to say the least. See, I, a native-born Texan, have two Yankee parents. As such, I’ve been able to hear both sides of the “idea” of Juneteenth and now, I am at a final resting place for my attitude about this new celebration of what used to be a regional observance.
I’m ok with it.
Let me explain; I love the idea of Juneteenth. It’s simple to me.The Civil War ended, White folks were trippin’, the army had to come in, let everybody know what’s up. Easy right? I thought so too…but then the other side came in.
Now, for the sake of fairness, I do get some of the opposition that was very prevalent in my younger days. It’s kind of strange to celebrate the late arrival of emancipation, however, I also didn’t understand why others cared so much when this wasn’t a national thing. It was for us Texans. Then an elder of mine stated plainly, “They don’t like that we celebrate our freedom, because they don’t celebrate theirs. And never have. But will celebrate the fourth of July like it meant something.” And there it was: clarity. The line had been drawn in the sand and I now stood firmly on the side of Juneteenth.
I admit I never understood why other Black communities had no observance of their freedom. I figured someone heard about the Emancipation Proclamation and said that’s a good day to light up a barbecue and shoot up some fireworks, but no. Even a simple observance of Black liberation would be cool, right? But…no.
So, I carried on quietly eating my ribs and finding some strawberries to munch on (I’m not a watermelon fan, so I kept it 19th with another red fruit). Then something happened. I met someone who would eventually become a close friend from upstate New York; Syracuse to be exact. At some point, we were talking, and I mentioned Juneteenth and she said, “yeah, I haven’t celebrated that since I left home.”
You know I – the native-born Texan – was confused. How could…why would a New Yorker know anything about Juneteenth? As curious as a cat, I probed for everything she knew about MY holiday, and to my surprise she got it all right! She told me that there were observances in small places all the time, and they were often met with the same disdain as I was familiar with when it came to outsiders learning about Juneteenth.
Still, at that point, I couldn’t care less. I was far too excited to have a friend to silence the haters who didn’t have a country accent. It was glorious. And we both were soldiers in the army of Juneteenth laying tongue thrashings to haters at the drop of a dime.
Then, in late February 2012, George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin and the world changed. For years, the Black community had endured a seemingly unending display of Black bodies murdered by police with no accountability or consequence. Now, here was this civilian, with a far more extensive criminal background than the child he’d literally stalked against police orders before instigating contact with and killing him, being given the same hand-waving latitude as police officers, while social media exploded with concentrated efforts to dehumanize the victim.
Call it the first moments of the resurgence of the Civil Rights Movement, and the global awareness campaign that would become Black Lives Matter. Everything had changed, but not really. It was still business as usual but something else was there. An underlying tone was getting louder. A fervor that was just under the surface ready to explode, and we all knew it was coming.
The next few years, things just grew more and more tense. During that whole time, we still celebrated Juneteenth. More Black celebrities were talking about it; I saw Usher wear a shirt on stage X-ing out the Fourth of July and underlining Juneteenth…. Cool. I look up and folks in California are explaining to the internet the importance of Juneteenth.
What the hell is happening? I called my friend; she already knew. We lamented, asked what’s the deal with this, laughed, and casually dismissed the fair weather freedom lovers for what we thought was, at best, a momentary interest.
Thankfully, we were wrong, but I still had a few lingering reservations. After all, my mother told me about growing up in the 1960’s and watching all her peers rock afros and Afrocentric garments, but by the mid-70’s to early-80’s she said, “Most of them negroes went back to perms and tight fades to appease white folks to get jobs in the corporate sector.”
I couldn’t deny that, nor could I separate how humans use trends in horrible situations to feel better about what we feel we can’t control. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t sit at the top of my thought process when bringing up Juneteenth with certain people.
And then there was George Floyd. The chillingly silent explosion we had all been waiting for. That tragic, horrific, damn near 9-minute bomb that blew up in our faces as we just watched. Say what you want, but we all watched. For whatever reason, we watched. We saw that clock ticking, and we watched. We heard that fear, and we watched. BOOM. The whole world heard that explosion, but this time, the world was not turning away.
For a while, the planet was engulfed in conversation about Black lives. Not only through marches, but also via dialogue, history lessons, context, perspectives, think pieces, and…wait for it, Juneteenth. Yep, right there in the middle of all this turmoil, were groups of people talking about Juneteenth.
To be fair, Juneteenth occurred that year as usual, however, at that time, I was feeling like, “oh, it just takes slavery, Jim Crow, civil right movement, black power movement, hip hop, countless black people killed by the police and a global protest to get Black people to recognize this…great.” Looking back, I think I was just upset that that’s the norm for things like this.
My mother-in-law blames it on socialization. According to her, Americans are not wired to learn lessons easily. It takes a lot, but once we move the needle, it tends to stay moved. Today there are national talks about Juneteenth, as well as different states recognizing the date as important in the history and context of the USA’s racial past.
I was still having reservations about supporting this, but like most things in my life, an elder spoke to me. Saying mostly “better late than never,” but also re-affirming what I already knew to be true. This isn’t about white folks not letting us go free. It ain’t about Black folks “not knowing” about the end of the war, nor not being given anything.
Juneteenth is about us.
It’s about us recognizing our inherent liberty and freedom. The thing is, when did any enslaved person truly know they were free? Hell, Malcolm X was talking about the mentally enslaved DURING the Civil Rights Movement. When were the shackles truly taken off? And did they stay off? What reminds you of not slipping back into a place of subjugation? No need to guess, I’ll tell you; It’s a ritual. A ceremony that takes all that and puts it in its place. I took for granted that I was born in a place where that was the norm, and others were just now waking up to the idea that we deserve a day of recognition that are NOT slaves. Who celebrates that? We do.
In the words of the illustrious Charles O’Neil, Chairman, Board of Directors at U.S. Black Chambers, Inc, “Apparently there was NO party before Juneteenth…what “emancipation” date is commemorated in SC, AL, GA, TN, KY, MS, LA, AR, VA, NC? Juneteenth mighta been late, but there was no party ‘til Texas got there!” It’s a point of pride really. Through all this we’ve been telling y’all we free! Late sure, messed up, yes, but we’re here EVERY YEAR, doing our most to enjoy us, to celebrate us.
So, welcome! Pull up a seat, pour some fresh prepared strawberry soda, slice a watermelon, and inhale the sweet smells from the grill, ‘cuz we are all free. Free to be who we want and who we are now and forever.
We now understand our foundational influence on this place. Our ownership of its history and our roles in making sure that it never reverts. We’re in it now, like yesterday never left. Voter suppression efforts like it’s still the Jim Crow era, law enforcement still acting like slave catchers, and racists in power doing their best to keep it.
But we have Juneteenth. Not just the day, but also the attitude, the philosophy, the ideal. It’s ours.
I do not know what the future holds, cliché as that is, but I can be sure of a one thing this year. On the 19th of June, the United States of America’s African population will be as unified as ever, and I can’t see that going away. I’m thankful for that. I appreciate that, and I will allow that to melt away the younger sentiments I had towards my fellow Black folks whom I welcome with open arms into this new head space.
Just don’t forget where it comes from: TEXAS BABY!
Patrick Washington is the second-generation CEO and publisher of The Dallas Weekly which has been serving the Black community of the 4th largest metroplex in the nation since 1954.
Help us Continue to tell OUR Story and join the AFRO family as a member – subscribers are now members! Join here!