This week the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill establishing Juneteenth as a national holiday. Juneteenth is a celebration of Black American resilience that is steeped in the experiences of Black Texans in particular. While it has been wonderful seeing more Black people discover Juneteenth and learn about the legacy of this uniquely Black American holiday, it has been painful to watch the performative commodification of this day take root. We are dangerously close to stripping all meaning out of this day and allowing corporate interests, political performance and capitalism to stake claim to this day.
I want to acknowledge the work of Ms. Opal Lee, the 94-year old Black elder known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.” Ms. Lee has worked tirelessly to get Juneteenth recognized at the Federal Holiday after seeing the merit in this celebration all her life in her native Texas. My critique is not meant to diminish Ms. Lee’s work nor to stifle what is surely a joyous development for her personally. However, we must as organizers question the HOW and WHEN of this action. Why NOW? Why is the Senate so eager to pass a Federal Holiday marking the callous way that enslaved people were notified about the Emancipation Proclamation? What is THEIR goal?
I would never question Ms. Lee’s intention and goal of educating more people about Juneteenth, but we already know what happens when a part of Black American history is enveloped in the whiteness that is a “federal holiday.” We watch with consternation every third Monday in January as we are subjected to useless corporate statements, performative political announcements and a whitewashing of the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Just a few days ago on Twitter Bernice A. King noted regarding the bastardization of MLK Day: “It’s something that I have to address every January…people and organizations making MLK Day about painting murals, while racism, poverty and militarism persist.”
In 2015, activists and organizers within the Movement for Black Lives launched #ReclaimMLK, a call to action to take back the narrative legacy of MLK and recenter the holiday on the radical message of his life and work. As we watch the same thing happen with Juneteenth, I can’t help but wonder how long until we will need to #ReclaimJuneteenth? Perhaps this time we need to do that collective work proactively?
After a year of racial justice protests against police violence, a pandemic that disproportionately affected Black people, an ever-increasing wealth gap and calls for things like defunding the police and investing in Black communities, the Senate took action to … make Juneteenth a national holiday. This is the definition of performative political action. Making Juneteenth a national holiday does nothing to affect the material conditions of Black Americans and also asks nothing of those in power. It is an empty gesture, but not one without precedence.
The United States has an infuriating habit of acting in performative rather than substantive ways when it comes to the needs of Black people. We demand less money go to policing in our communities but we get a “top cop” candidate for Mayor of New York City instead. We make it clear we want a living wage for all people, but get handed “investment corridors.” And yes, we spend a year allegedly “reckoning with race in the USA” and instead of Congress passing the anti-lynching legislation, we get a perforative holiday. We scream about voter suppression and can’t even get the For the People Act passed.
To make Juneteenth — a day rooted in truth-telling about the racist history of the USA — a federal holiday while voting rights are on the brink of being rolled back to Jim Crow level suppression tactics and laws are being passed to deliberately prohibit the truth about racism in this country from being taught in our schools is a special kind of gaslighting. It should make us question how Juneteenth would even be taught or spoken about in the coming years. How long will it be until “Juneteenth” is stripped of all meaning and positioned as a “day to celebrate Blackness” completely detached from the painful but resilient legacy the holiday was created to uphold?
Whiteness will always position “acknowledgment and understanding” as progress. Corporations get to act “woke” by closing for Juneteenth — a move that will certainly benefit more white people than anyone else. Politicians get to make annual proclamations of “support for Black Americans” — while they do nothing to meet the needs of those same Black people. We simply deserve better than this.
We cannot allow white America learning something new about Black American history — whether it is via a Tom Hanks op-ed about the Tulsa Race Massacre or a performative new “holiday” — to be positioned as progress. When our healthcare workers needed protection, they got a generic round of applause at 6 p.m. every day. When we demanded police stop killing Black people, we got painted streets. Substantive action is the only pathway to truly moving forward. Our demands to not just survive but thrive in the American experiment continue to fall on deaf ears and no federal holiday designation will change that.
I challenge us all to hold Juneteenth close and allow Black communities to drive how we engage. I implore our accomplices in the fight for liberation to commit to taking definitive ACTION in response to Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday — push back locally against attempts to silence teaching truthful American history in our schools, work to defund the police in your city, demand a living wage for all workers in your state and link arms with Black organizers fighting once again to preserve a democracy that has never seen us fully. Learn from the past and make different choices to preserve the meaning of Juneteenth for the next generation.
I’ll close with these words from Ms. Lee: “We’ve got all of these disparities that we’ve got to address and I mean all of them.”
Leslie Mac is a Brooklyn girl, Organizer, Digital Strategist and Communications expert and Communications Director for The Frontline. A seasoned Digital Strategist & Social Media Advisor, via LM Consulting with clients that include Google, UltraViolet, Articulate, UMass Amherst, Amazon, Meadville Lombard Theological School, Canvas8, and The Advancement Project.