The True Meaning of Juneteenth

I won’t pretend Juneteenth has always meant a lot to me.

I was born in Texas, as were my parents and most of my kin, all the way back to at least the 19th century, when some of them were enslaved. Still, for most of my life, the day was just another holiday marked on the community calendar — even if it was our day, a day for Black Texans. Perhaps one sign that a thing belongs to you is that you take it for granted.

The past few years have forced some stronger feelings to the surface.

I’ve grown possessive as our day became everybody’s. Since it became a federal holiday last year, Juneteenth is marked on every calendar — even those of folks like the Donald Trump supporter I met in Dallas last fall who lamented “this critical race theory stuff” being taught in schools and scoffed at the idea of “white privilege.”

Last year, in a defiant mood, I vowed not to write about the holiday at all and instead spent it on the beach with my boyfriend in Galveston. “Love to the ancestors,” I tweeted. “Lemme know when the reparations check arrives.”

More recently, my strong feeling was anger toward Walmart. This spring the company released a commemorative sweet treat, Celebration Edition: Juneteenth Ice Cream, alongside Juneteenth plates, napkins and even a can koozie that read, “It’s the freedom for me.” I was shocked at first, as were countless others.

Then I asked myself, how exactly should the whole nation celebrate a day like this? Juneteenth is a peculiar holiday, perhaps befitting the “peculiar institution” of slavery. That June 19 in 1865, the day we now celebrate as a nation, was the day that Black Texans officially received some of the stalest news in American history.

Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger stepped out on a balcony in Galveston and announced, “The people of Texas are informed … that all slaves are free.” It might have been thrilling to hear that news, but it was also outrageous to hear it so late: two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863; two months after the Confederacy’s Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered; two months after Lincoln was killed. If we got upset about some Juneteenth ice cream, imagine how those roughly 250,000 enslaved Texans must have felt when they found out they had been the victims of horrendous overtime fraud.

But really, what holiday isn’t distorted or irony laden in this country? We celebrate Labor Day, while a 2021 report revealed that American workers have it worse than every other developed country when it comes to workplace benefits. We celebrate Thanksgiving yet rarely acknowledge that that fabled first meal between the Native Americans and colonists would be followed by genocide. I don’t even have to explain the absurdity of the F.B.I. wishing us all a happy Martin Luther King’s Birthday.

The Roman poet Juvenal signaled that an empire could control its citizens through giving them “bread and circuses.” The American empire gives us holidays.

What are we to do with Juneteenth? I say we look to another bastardized American holiday: Easter.

I was raised an evangelical Christian and sometimes think of all those Easter Sundays spent in church. New suits and dresses. Easter egg hunts. Candy out the wazoo. Most of all, I think of how each year, my cousin Rhodia Fay would rise before our congregation and recite James Weldon Johnson’s “The Crucifixion” a long dramatic poem detailing Christ’s murder. By the time she reached the final stanza, she’d be trembling, sweating, in tears:

Rhodia Fay has passed on, so I can’t ask her, but I do believe that she believed a man had hung and died for her 2,000 years ago. All the foolishness of Easter didn’t dilute the event’s meaning, didn’t make her grief and gratitude less real.

This Juneteenth, those are the feelings I’m channeling: grief and gratitude, even amid the silliness of America’s pageantry.

My grandmother Clarice was born in Pelham, Texas, a freedmen’s town. She took us grandchildren back for homecoming most years, sometimes even had us pick cotton, reminding us, “You’ve got to know your history.” She also told us of the folks she knew in Pelham as a child, some of whom were born enslaved, a fact that horrified me. Clarice always refused my sympathies.

“Child, don’t be believing what folks say about how bad slavery was,” she’d explain. “Everybody had a job, a place to stay and something to eat. Now if somebody came and paid your rent, you wouldn’t be sitting up talking about you wanna leave, would you?”

This dumbfounded me, until I realized she was mostly joking. But there was something deeper in her response. I eventually learned more about the violence that met newly emancipated Black Texans. Ku Klux Klansmen, along with local officials and everyday citizens, terrorized freedmen at will and without repercussions. They burned churches and homes, intimidated those who sought employment, and worse. Gen. Joseph Jones Reynolds, a commander of the Department of Texas during Reconstruction, commented in 1868, “The murder of Negroes is so common as to render it impossible to keep an accurate account of them.” The Equal Justice Initiative has tried, reporting that more than 2,000 Black women, men and children were victims of racial terrorist lynchings during Reconstruction, which lasted from 1865 to 1877.

Slavery was awful, no doubt, but emancipation brought its own unique cruelties. Formerly enslaved Texans were forced to craft lives from less than scratch; choose new names; attempt to reunite with stolen partners, siblings, children. They faced daily threats of jail or worse because of the new Black codes that severely restricted their freedom — their freedom to work, but also their freedom to be unemployed or even to stand still for too long.

The more I learned, the more I understood my grandmother’s perspective. She’d heard the testimonies of those who’d had to navigate both the tragedy of slavery and the terror of emancipation. She couldn’t let me underestimate the enormous price our people had paid to be free.

I miss Clarice so much some days, it’s hard to think straight. I regret not asking more questions about our family, about her life in Pelham. As more folks in Clarice’s generation pass away, we are losing the final physical links to those who know our history — who are our history. We can do no better this Juneteenth than to spend time with the elders who are still with us. Get them to talk. Record their stories.

These historical and systemic injustices have not been resolved. But as Black Americans, we cannot wait for the day when our country will pay the respect that is due our forebears — or pay us those reparations.

Instead of holding our breath, let us find the freshest air we can find and breathe it as deeply as we can, with joy. Let us grieve for our forebears and feel deep gratitude as we think of the enormous price our people paid so we could be free. Let us remember that despite the degradation of slavery, they lived fully human lives, too. They laughed. They loved. They dreamed. They ate sweet treats. Let us pray to them and say, this year and always: Thank you.

Casey Gerald (@CaseyGerald) is the author of the memoir “There Will Be No Miracles Here.” His essays include “The Black Art of Escape,” which reflects on the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans’ arrival in Virginia, in 1619.

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