I have no issue with celebrating America’s independence on July 4. For me, wearing the shirt was an opportunity to inform others who may not necessarily know the history of black people in America, and who are not aware that Juneteenth is our authentic day of self-determination. It is ours to honor the legacy of our ancestors, ours to celebrate and ours to remember where we once were as a people. And it should be a national holiday, observed by all Americans.
Growing up in Chattanooga, Tenn., I was taught in school one version of U.S. history that frequently excluded the history of my family and my community. The black history I learned came from the “Eyes On the Prize” documentary that aired during Black History Month. That was where I learned about Emmett Till, Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. When I moved to Atlanta at age 13, I went deeper and discovered more about the movement, the horrors of slavery and the resilience of our people. I came to understand Juneteenth’s history a decade ago during a period of reflection and in pursuit of any ancestral history that would tell me who I am.
The liberation Juneteenth commemorates is cause for celebration, but it also reminds us how equality can be delayed. On June 19, 1865, on the shores of Galveston, Tex., Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived by boat to announce to enslaved African Americans that the Civil War had ended and they were now free. While President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued two and a half years prior, and the Civil War had ended in April of that year, it wasn’t until June 19, 1865, that almost all of our ancestors were free. We should honor their lives and celebrate that day of freedom forever.
I cherish the words of Nina Simone. I respect the legacy of Harry Belafonte and the unapologetic blackness of James Brown. I admire the entrepreneurship of Madam C.J. Walker. I have learned from my elders. Their wisdom has taught me to use my voice to support my people, so many of whom are hurting right now. Making sure that our history is told is critical to supporting and sustaining our growth as a people. The least we deserve is to have this essential moment included in the broader American story.
I am humbled by the platform that has been given to me because of my musical talents, but I know I must do more with it. As an artist, it is my duty to reflect the trying times in which we live. My heart is shattered by the ongoing injustices in this country, incited by its long history of racism that has led to deadly outcomes for too many of our people. This country must change.
And it must change quickly.
Recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday would be a small gesture compared with the greater social needs of black people in America. But it can remind us of our journey toward freedom, and the work America still has to do.
We could observe it, as many black Americans already do, by celebrating both our first step toward freedom as black people in America and also the many contributions to this land: the construction of Black Wall Street; the invention of jazz, rock n’ roll, hip-hop and R&B; and all the entrepreneurship and business brilliance, extraordinary cuisine, sports excellence, political power and global cultural influence black Americans have given the world.
And rather than observing Juneteenth as we do other holidays, by taking it off, we can make it a day when black culture, black entrepreneurship and black business get our support. A national Juneteenth observance can affirm that Black Lives Matter!
I proudly join the incredible people and organizations who have been working on this for years, among them the inspiring Opal Lee, a 93-year-old from Fort Worth, Tex., who has campaigned for the recognition of Juneteenth at the state and local level. There has never been a more urgent time than now to get this done. On Thursday, Sens. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) announced that they are introducing legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Congress must pass this bill immediately.
As we celebrate today, let’s stay open to possibility. Let’s support black-owned businesses today and every day. Let’s uplift our resilient history. Let’s honor our people. Happy Juneteenth, America.