A few days ago, an Uber driver I had on the way home from work told me that “The older you get, the more your doctor tells you to laugh—so I laugh a lot!” It was the eighteenth of June. I had learned earlier that the White House made Juneteenth a federal holiday, and, since I work in customer service, I was already witnessing the announcement’s effects, as uncharacteristically large groups of characteristically white patrons poured into my workplace to celebrate their new day off. Knowing that it would be worse the next day, being Juneteenth, and recognizing that I would be serving middle-aged and wizened white folks on a day meant to commemorate my freedom, I was not inclined to laugh.
But I have no trouble heeding the driver’s words. In fact, I often laugh and poke fun at ethnopolitical contradictions in this country. I have grown all but numb to the exoneration of crooked police, the persistence of voter suppression, the ever-widening shadow of racist violence. Yet I felt deeply offended that a day meant to celebrate the liberation of my ancestors from chains was being used by the federal government to give themselves a day off, that so many of my workplace’s white clientele were given the day off, and that I, a Black man, would have to do their bidding 156 years after slaves in Galveston, Texas learned that they would do their masters’ bidding no more. The irony was stultifying. I was frustrated with my workplace, with the Biden administration, and even with myself for failing to laugh it off the way my (few) Black coworkers had.
Having been so troubled by the situation, I do not exaggerate in saying that that Uber driver saved my Juneteenth this year. I had fixated so much on the irony that my celebration became indignation. Irony abounds in this country, nay, this world—this particular instance of it was no different. As an American person of color, there will always be something to be bothered by, but one must choose to laugh to preserve their sanity. I had to make that decision in high school when I realized that none of my peers felt as strongly about racial issues as I did, and the disillusionment that followed led me to apply to only historically Black universities. I learned then that to keep my frustrations from constantly boiling over, I had to remove myself from the situations responsible for them, and to laugh is to remove one’s mind from tribulation. In the words of Vonnegut, “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion, to the futility of thinking and striving anymore. I myself prefer to laugh since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.”
In the end, how I feel about Juneteenth being made a federal holiday matters very little. Who gets a day off and who doesn’t, while it certainly has the potential to confound and frustrate, does not change any more about the day itself than the size of a holiday bonus does about Christmas, or the proliferation of green beer does about St. Patrick’s Day. A holiday is not meant to celebrate the material and the fleeting, but something far greater, and Juneteenth is meant to celebrate the most perennially important and incorruptible thing of all: freedom. My driver that day helped me realize that it was disrespectful of my ancestors’ incessant march toward freedom to spend freedom’s birthday sullen and wounded, and neither of us even mentioned the holiday. So, I am resolving now to continue choosing laughter, if only to keep from crying.