We all know what happens to holidays in America — the thing that we are actually supposed to commemorate somehow gets shoved aside in a whirlwind of sales, travel incentives and themed merch.
Memorial Day, for instance, is more about the unofficial start of summer than honoring those lost to war. Labor Day closes out the season with nary a nod toward the labor movement or the workers who died in the Pullman Strike that led to that holiday’s creation in the first place. Presidents’ Day is supposed to be a time for honoring past leaders but happens to fall at an opportune moment for automakers to roll out their discounts.
With its timing on the calendar, its pithy moniker and its roots in Black culture, Juneteenth is sure to be a marker for celebrations and a whole lot of barbecue. I’m down for that. And enslaved people getting their freedom is cause for celebration, family-strong gatherings and line-dancing the wobble late into the night.
But just know an avalanche will follow.
We can be sure that marketing experts are, at this very moment, trying to come up with culturally appropriate fonts and uplifting music that has a funky downbeat; Somewhere a circle of ad honchos is hunched over a whiteboard, contemplating how to create a color scheme that will sizzle and pop and whisper liberty. You just know that there is a brainstorming session underway about how to create a design palette that nods affirmatively toward the mother continent of Africa, while possibly enticing all those consumers who don’t really see this as their holiday.
As President Biden signed the bill into law establishing the new federal holiday, dictionary searches for “Juneteenth” shot up 8,200 percent. A new Gallup poll tells us that more than 60 percent of Americans know “a little bit” or “nothing at all” about Juneteenth, which marks the day in 1865 when the last enslaved Blacks in Texas learned — two years late — that the Emancipation Proclamation had set them free.
So this new holiday will mark the end of an abomination extended by deliberate and diabolical obfuscation.
It is ironic and maybe even surreal that Juneteenth has been enshrined at a moment of so much racial turmoil. While we should applaud its arrival, we should also acknowledge that symbolism — while important — won’t replace the need for substantive action to protect voting rights and save our democracy.
But, as ironies go, here is perhaps the biggest one: Juneteenth becomes a holiday at the very moment when teachers in a growing number of states won’t be able to even explain the full story of why our country is commemorating emancipation. Conservatives in many states are blocking educators from using critical race theory to teach American schoolchildren about our past and present, as if that was actually even happening in K-12 classrooms.
The new laws preventing the teaching of CRT to schoolchildren are often framed as a way to protect kids — more specifically, White kids — from feeling bad about themselves. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) recently signed a bill that prohibits teachers from any kind of instruction that might make students feel “anguish” or “guilt on “account of his or her race or sex.” Under this new law, classroom teachers must refrain from promoting the idea that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
Many CRT critics can barely explain or define what the philosophy or approach to scholarship holds, beyond bellowing about a conversation they don’t much like. Instead, CRT has become a whack-a-mole weapon used to smash any attempt to discuss race or racism in the classroom or outside of it. The broad swipe against CRT is an attempt to sweep away almost any robust examination of how enslavement followed by decades of legalized oppression continue to shape the country today.
I wish people who were concerned about the possibility of children being exposed to the alleged harms of critical race theory were equally concerned about children being exposed to actual racism.
America loves the idea of freedom, so let’s celebrate Juneteenth and its place on the calendar between Memorial Day and July Fourth. But let’s figure out how to truly commemorate this day. That will be a challenge, because few things rev up the engine of selective storytelling like a federal holiday. And, because virtue signaling through holiday consumption is so much easier than doing the hard work of understanding what Juneteenth represents.