One year ago, I and three hundred thirty million Americans experienced the first ever federally recognized Juneteenth. Regular readers might remember that mine began less than exceptionally.
When I heard two days prior that Juneteenth had been declared a federal holiday, all I could think about was how little of an impact that news would have on me. With hate crimes surging and the nation embroiled in protest and political conflict, the announcement felt akin to applying a Band-Aid to a leper. What was the federal recognition of an already extant holiday going to do for me? How would it in any way address the multitude of tangible and life-threatening issues plaguing African Americans and that have been plaguing us since the original Juneteenth one hundred fifty years ago?
On top of this, I still had to work on Juneteenth while many of my employer’s white patrons received a brand-new day off. As evidenced by my having written an essay about it, I was obviously beside myself. It wasn’t until a chipper Black rideshare driver reminded me to laugh it all off that I regained my composure. Contradictions are beyond commonplace in America, and I realized then that one more shouldn’t have the power to overshadow the celebration of something as pure and incorruptible as freedom.
I felt much better ahead of this year’s holiday, if not only because it happened to fall on one of my days off. The nation, as you should know, is still a mess—African Americans continue to suffer countless human rights abuses while human rights across the board are being assailed, even in the land’s highest court. Clearly, the insignificant knowledge that Juneteenth was being nationally observed did next to nothing to improve my mood, and I still believe it did next to nothing for the millions of us still fighting to actualize the freedom it’s meant to commemorate. Having the day to myself—which the holiday had nothing to do with—did keep my cynicism at bay, however. I find that, with most troubling things, I often find something in them to appreciate once physically or temporally distanced from them, and the holiday proved to be no different.
“We free,” said my father sardonically after I wished him a “happy Juneteenth.” His comment took a tone that seemed to add, “but..is we?” It was this particular question, I realize, that made me so upset last June. My father, like the rideshare driver, was perfectly undisturbed—I’ve always been envious of how little seems to faze him. I, on the other hand, was so infuriated by our government’s specious attempts at inclusivity that I’m writing my second piece about them in as many Juneteenths. But, to revive a previous query, what was my fury going to do for me? Nearly the entire history of American race relations is characterized by trifling and ineffective stopgaps, so why should I be especially offended by this one?
This Juneteenth, I concluded that the holiday’s new status, if it does nothing else, functions as an effective and timely symbol for a grieving nation. Contradictions and performative politics aside, Juneteenth is an annual monument not just to the relative freedom that African Americans currently enjoy, but the complete freedom we tirelessly pursue. Regardless of my thoughts on the matter, the decision to grant it federal holiday status fortified the latter fact. It symbolizes the battles won and, preemptively, the battles still to win. Today, one year removed from my frustrations, I feel foolish for having failed to appreciate something so poetic.
In America, volatility reigns supreme. Our rights, loved ones, and selves are constantly being threatened, attacked, or worse, and I can think of no better home for as positive and enduringly essential a symbol as Juneteenth. The politics, days off, cheesy merchandise, and other holiday accompaniments only serve to distract us from what the day truly represents.
Though I regret how much time this discovery took for me, I’m pledging to retain my new attitude for all my successive Junes. I suppose I really did just need a day off.