What is Juneteenth and Why is Its Celebration Important?

Would you believe me if I told you I lived 44 years as a Black American before I learned about Juneteenth? That simple fact alone speaks volumes about why Juneteenth is so important.

Last June came on the heels of the tragic murder of George Floyd. This period was the first in my lifetime that I saw Black lives, Black stories, Black trauma, and Black excellence amplified on a national stage.

Seeing the Black experience examined and empathized with on such a large scale was equal parts comforting as it was confusing. While I was surprised to learn just how little my white friends, family and neighbors knew about what it means to be Black in America, I was also surprised to learn just how little I knew about myself.

Suddenly, there were documentaries about Black history available on streaming services. There were essays being shared on social media. There were long overdue conversations happening on street corners and at the dinner table. Angela Davis? Loving v. Virginia? Juneteenth? There were so many important pieces of my own history that I knew virtually nothing about.

I quickly realized that my lack of knowledge had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with the way our society is designed to make us ashamed of our Blackness. 

From David Stern’s racially biased NBA dress code, to the way Black bodies are demonized in mainstream media, to little Black boys being told their cornrows are not appropriate for school, to talented young professionals being written up in workplaces for wearing their natural hair, one does not need to look far to find glaring examples of how our Blackness is to be shamed, muted and feared in America… and if it is to be shamed, muted and feared, then it surely is not to be celebrated.

And it’s not celebrated.

And that is why Juneteenth is so important.

Juneteenth is about the strength, bravery, resilience, and sheer magic of our people.

In my 44th year, I learned that Juneteenth is a celebration of June 19th, 1865, when the last of our enslaved people were set free.

It is no mistake that it took me 44 years to learn about this very important turning point in American history. You see, America simply tolerates our Blackness, it does not embrace or uplift it, and it certainly does not celebrate it.

Despite slavery becoming outlawed, our people have continued to be oppressed, hunted and terrorized simply for being Black in America. Let me ask you this: if I live in a country where I have to teach my children how to protect themselves from the police, how free are we, truly?

Juneteenth not only marks the end of an unspeakably dark chapter of our American history, it also honors our ancestors who were able to survive the unimaginable simply by hoping that a better day would come. And not only does Juneteenth honor the unbreakable spirit of our ancestors, it also marks the beginning of the generations that followed and found a way to thrive, despite continuing to wear invisible chains.

Juneteenth is about the strength, bravery, resilience, and sheer magic of our people.

It’s about suffering through 156 years of racial-based violence, lynching, segregation, and inequity, and still finding a way to rise.

Juneteenth embodies the pain and triumph of our shared history.

Juneteenth is America’s true Independence Day.

Just this week, the House passed a bill 415-14 to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, and President Joe Biden is scheduled to sign the bill into law this very afternoon.

Imagine that: Juneteenth, a federal holiday. A day on which the country pauses to recognize the Black experience in America. A day for Black parents to teach their children about their history, give thanks to their ancestors, and be proud of the strength and resilience of their people. A day to be loudly, proudly and unapologetically Black, in a country that has spent the past 156 years trying to make us hate ourselves for simply being who we are.

With President Biden’s signing of the bill, which will usher Juneteenth in as America’s newest federal holiday, America will take a large, important step toward finally becoming one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

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