The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White people learn about Juneteenth, celebrated by millions of black Americans every year

The Juneteenth flag flies in Omaha on Wednesday.
The Juneteenth flag flies in Omaha on Wednesday. (Nati Harnik/AP)

“A few years ago. Sadly.”

“I’m 66. I heard about it this week.”

“Just now. . . . I actually had to look it up on Wikipedia.”

“Three days ago.”

This is when white people across America — all adults, all educated — admitted that they learned about Juneteenth.

Meanwhile — for at least 150 June 19ths — millions of black Americans held parades, family reunions, picnics and celebrations. It’s a day of strawberry soda, red velvet cake, family, community and history. Harrowing history.

“It’s like Fourth of July for us. How have so many never known?” said Tashieka Russell, as she scrolled through a Twitter thread of white Americans talking about their introduction to Juneteenth. “We really live in two Americas.”

Like so many black Americans, Russell learned about the holiday and its history not from school, but from her family.

For more than a century, it has been grandmothers, fathers or uncles who tell kids about that day in 1865, when some of the last people still enslaved in America were told of their freedom. They were in Galveston, Tex., in a state where more than 250,000 men, women and children endured slavery for an additional 2½ years after President Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation.

Juneteenth celebrates ‘a moment of indescribable joy’: Slavery’s end in Texas

“Always a barbecue get-together,” said Russell, 47, a retired Army master sergeant and mother of two who grew up in Pittsburgh. “Church picnics and oratory contests were the norm to celebrate us.”

I bet President Trump didn’t imagine he’d be the one to introduce the holiday to much of white America.

He scheduled his first campaign rally since the coronavirus pandemic on June 19 in Tulsa, the site of a 1921 race massacre that remains one of the worst incidents of racial violence in our contemporary history.

Click-click-click. Yup, white America hit the keyboards to quickly fill that gaping hole in their schooling, too.

The Trump campaign moved the rally to Saturday but didn’t abandon Tulsa. In fact, the president said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Thursday that he deserved credit for putting Juneteenth on the map.

“I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous,” Trump crowed. “It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.”

He also underscored the deep flaws and baked-in racism of the American education system.

When the School Library Journal did a quick poll this week, it found that 90 percent of the educators who responded don’t include Juneteenth in their teaching.

I didn’t learn about it until I was 25, working as a reporter in New Orleans and I was interviewing a black woman who told me about a fond memory she had preparing for a Juneteenth celebration with her husband.

If white people didn’t learn about it from a black studies class in college or from a friend, they saw it pop up on their iPhone calendars or caught it on TV — an episode of “Watchmen” or “Blackish.”

See it now?

It’s one of the foundations for the division and ignorance tearing at America today — the white history curriculum masquerading as American history — no matter how well-meaning, woke or supportive we think we are.

All those green cookies on St. Patrick’s Day and construction paper Santa Marias on Columbus Day, but did any schools cover the deep scars of slavery on our nation and how black Americans today reckon with it?

Strawberry soda and red velvet cake are part of the holiday, symbolizing the blood spilled in slavery.

Historians also connect red to the power and spirituality the color holds in some West African cultures.

Want to talk heritage? This, far more than a greenish statue of a man on a horse covered in pigeon poop, helps Americans understand the building of this nation.

It’s a day of celebration, yes. The family reunions are the echo of the frantic reunions that happened in 1865, as mothers and fathers went in search of children who were sold off to plantations in other states, when ripped-apart families tried to mend.

‘My mother was sold from me’: After slavery, the desperate search for loved ones in ‘last seen ads’

“It’s a day of joy and solemnity,” said Professor Sybil Roberts Williams, director of African American and African diaspora studies in the Department of Performing Arts at American University. “There’s this issue that slavery ended, but it took two years to get the word out. How did that happen? It was just so tragic that freedom was delayed for two whole years — that’s an important thing to talk about.”

Perhaps, Juneteenth wasn’t easily recognizable to all of America because there are many days that commemorate America’s journey toward ending slavery, Williams said.

There’s the initial Emancipation Proclamation issued by Lincoln on Sept. 22. 1862. Or its official declaration on Jan. 1, 1863. Or the passing of the 13th Amendment on Jan. 31, 1865.

D.C. celebrates Emancipation Day on April 16, for the day in 1862 that more than 3,000 enslaved people were liberated in the District five months before Lincoln’s proclamation.

Juneteenth, however, is a deeper, more definitive day.

It’s a day to talk about the unfinished business of America’s original sin. It widens the conversation to include all the other ways the system — Jim Crow, redlining, the Tulsa Race Massacre — has wronged black Americans.

Thanks to Trump (ironic, right?), Nike, Best Buy, Target and The Washington Post are finally acknowledging the holiday.

Our nation’s history is too often glossed over or ignored. All of our stories have not been heard. And the only way — 155 years after the first try — to finally become one America is to listen. And keep learning.

Twitter: @petulad

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