And so for more than 150 years, Black people have celebrated their own Independence Day: June 19, or Juneteenth, as it is more commonly known. It marks the anniversary of the day in 1865 when news of the Emancipation Proclamation, and chattel slavery’s official end, reached enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Tex. This was months after the Confederate Army had surrendered to the Union, ending the Civil War; six months after Congress passed the 13th Amendment; and more than two full years after Abraham Lincoln had first issued the proclamation. An oppressive regime hoped to delay our liberation — but it could not stop our progress.
Black Americans, starting in Texas and spreading across the United States, have celebrated on that day ever since. But it was only last summer when the holiday gained broader national and cross-racial attention, as part of the belated wave of recognition for Black stories during and after the protests of George Floyd’s murder. Major brands — including Twitter, Nike and the NFL — made Juneteenth an official holiday within their corporations. Politicians honored the day in speeches. And this week, a bill passed unanimously in the Senate to make Juneteenth the 11th official federal holiday.
A cynic — or simply a realist — would remind us that symbolic change is not the same as substantive improvement. Anti-racist reading lists haven’t stopped Black Americans from being killed by the police. Corporate diversity, equity and inclusion workshops haven’t closed the racial wealth gap.
The Senate may have voted in favor of recognizing Juneteenth, but the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is still withering away waiting for the Senate to act. The For the People Act and its voting rights protections are all but dead. And some of the same senators who voted in favor of a new Black holiday are sponsoring legislation that would ban the teaching of our country’s racist history.
A new holiday won’t fix the material injustices that continue to fall most heavily on Black America: poverty, state violence, incarceration, environmental hazards, poor access to health care, a legacy of financial discrimination and limitations on political power. In fact, symbolic wins more often serve to let their champions off the hook. “Your national greatness, swelling vanity; … your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery,” Douglass said.
But symbols accomplish something, too.
Elevating Emancipation Day to the stature of the Fourth of July may not change everything. But it does mean something. History is written by its victors, after all. To have our story represented means that we are finally victors too. It means that Black memory is respected. It means that as we come to terms with the truth of our past, the more difficult conversations — about reconciliation, about reparation, about the racism that still very much exists — are given space to begin.
The acknowledgment of race in America has always been less than enough. Progress is a two-step Texas style, moving forward, then back. Juneteenth itself reflects this. It’s a holiday of progress mixed with disappointment. Black Americans were told of their freedom, yes — but years delayed. It’s a celebration of the end of something that never should have existed to begin with. And yet, it is celebrated anyway.
A new holiday is inadequate. But as Douglass concluded in his contemplation on the Fourth, we can do more than sit in resignation. “Notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation,” he said, “I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work.”
Juneteenth can be a day of rest and a renewal of the fight. We can take what is owed — and, always, push for more.