The day was already an official holiday in some states, but now gets elevated to rare national status. At the White House signing ceremony, Vice President Harris, the first Black woman to hold the post, said it was incumbent on Americans to remember this moment when once-enslaved people seized their freedom. “We must learn from our history and we must teach our children our history, because it is part of our history as a nation,” she said. “It is part of American history.”
“History is written by its victors, after all. To have our story represented means that we are finally victors too,” wrote Washington Post opinions columnist Christine Emba. “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.”
That may be easier said than done in the current country’s political environment. The federal government’s decision to codify the day comes in the wake of last year’s racial justice protest movement, which revived a heated debated over the unfinished work of the civil rights movement and the traumas of slavery and racism that still shape American society. There’s already mounting anger from right-wing pundits, at least one of whom cast the new federal holiday as somehow a challenge to Independence Day on July 4.
The irony is that, far from charting a radical path, the United States is late to the party. It sits in a hemisphere where many countries already place the memory of slave resistance and emancipation at the heart of their national stories. The Juneteenth celebrations that have taken place in the United States since the 19th century — through parades, street processions, barbecues and many other festive activities — are of a piece with celebrations of Black liberation from the Caribbean, where the moment of emancipation is more closely tethered to histories of independence and freedom from Europe’s colonial empires.
Emancipation Day in countries such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and other former British colonies commemorates an end to bondage that predates the acts of emancipation in the United States by almost three decades. May 21 in Colombia is Afro-Colombian Day, marking the abolition of slavery there in 1851. Haiti’s Independence Day on Jan. 1 celebrates the astonishing emergence of the second independent nation of the Americas in 1804 — one where former Black slaves threw out their White French overseers.
Nov. 20 in Brazil is Black Consciousness Day — an official holiday in a number of states in the country, which was once home to the world’s largest population of enslaved Africans. It’s particularly linked to the 17th-century hero Zumbi dos Palmares, who was a leader of a “kingdom” of quilombolas, or escaped slaves.
In a mark of the constant pull the past has on modern politics, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has sought to overhaul the quilombolas’ rights to their historic lands afforded by the country’s 1988 constitution — in order, critics allege, to dole out concessions to the agribusiness sector. Not surprisingly, mass demonstrations against Bolsonaro’s rule in Rio de Janeiro last month happened to converge around a statue of Zumbi.
In recognizing Juneteenth, the United States is recognizing its own place in this broader history. Americans were all too aware of the upheavals and struggles happening in islands and colonies in the region. Consider the horror expressed by Thomas Jefferson in a 1793 letter to James Monroe — an exchange between two future presidents — as he discussed the fugitive plight of White French plantation owners chased out by rebelling slaves in Saint-Domingue, or what would eventually become the independent nation of Haiti.
“Never was so deep a tragedy presented to the feelings of man. ... I become daily more and more convinced that all the West India islands will remain in the hands of the people of colour, and a total expulsion of the whites sooner or later take place,” Jefferson wrote. “It is high time we should foresee the bloody scenes which our children certainly, and possibly ourselves ... have to wade through, and try to avert them.”
In that year, Congress passed the first infamous Fugitive Slave Act, which laid out a legal process for the return of runaways and reflected in no small measure the lurking terror of White enslavers who knew all too well how desperately their slaves wanted to rid themselves of their oppressors. Nevertheless, myriad armed slave rebellions took place in the United States in the first half of the 19th century. Awareness of this history, once long forgotten, is growing: In 2019, for example, hundreds of reenactors took part in a two-day, 26-mile trek through Louisiana to re-create the 1811 German Coast Uprising, which ended brutally, with the murder of dozens of enslaved people.
Yet this memory is now part of a politicized struggle. Even as Congress enshrines Juneteenth and Confederate statues steadily get lifted off their pedestals, Republicans are passing laws in a number of states that could restrict educational materials that look at American society and history through the prism of race. It could plausibly make it difficult to discuss even the contents of this short column in a classroom.
All the more reason to recognize Juneteenth. “It is both a second Independence Day and a reminder of ongoing oppression and continuing forms of stricture,” wrote the Atlantic’s Vann R. Newkirk II in 2017. “It is a memorial to the dead and a remonstrance to those who killed them. It is a clear articulation of the fact that America can never be free until her people are free, and a celebration of the people who have worked to make it so. Juneteenth is the purest distillation of the evils that still plague America, and a celebration of the good people who fought those evils.”