“To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.” ― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
This quote from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is powerful to reflect on as Juneteenth nears. We need to acknowledge the full truth and history of Juneteenth and the supposed “freedom” that followed. As the headlines and news coverage for Juneteenth celebrations ramp up, remember that this is a Black holiday and is worthy of celebration. But it is also a time to reflect and take action.
A Brief History of Juneteenth
Juneteenth commemorates and celebrates June 19th, 1865, when Major General Granger and 2,000 federal soldiers marched into Galveston, Texas to read and enforce General Order Number 3, which freed enslaved people in the Confederate State.
Since then, the date has been marked by Black people in Texas and beyond as a celebration of emancipation, and some say that it might be one of the oldest, continuously running celebrations of emancipation in the country. For 150 years it has been acknowledged with parades, family gatherings, pageants, barbecues, and picnics.
It must be noted, however, that June 19th, 1865 took place two years after The Emancipation Proclamation and the Confederacy’s surrender. And slavery continued to be legal in Delaware and Kentucky — two Union border states — for some time after.
So while we can celebrate Juneteenth as a marker of freedom, we must also acknowledge that it is tied to white dishonesty (to learn more, watch last year’s Juneteenth episode of The Special Report). Though enslaved people were technically freed, systems and laws such as Black Codes, sharecropping, and Vagrancy Laws continued the oppression, and decades of segregation and violence followed. Even Lincoln’s motivations were largely economic: The Emancipation Proclamation was more than partially due to his desire to cut off income from the Confederate Army. Centering him in a savior narrative disregards the tireless work of Black abolitionists of the time.
Juneteenth as a Federal Holiday
Last year, the Biden administration mandated that Juneteenth become a federal holiday with the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. This was an important step and the right thing to do. But as far as we have come, there is so much further to go. And likening Juneteenth to the Fourth of July is incorrect — freedom was not guaranteed for Black Americans on that day, and in many ways, is still not guaranteed today.
When the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act was signed, there was other critical legislation that was not, notably measures to guarantee voting rights and reform the police, both of which would substantially impact Black Americans. It’s a tragic irony that while a law was passed celebrating a landmark moment for Black people, there are still so many areas in life where we struggle against the vestiges of slavery and systemic racism rooted in those times.
Brands Should Not Capitalize on Juneteenth
It should go without saying that Juneteenth is not a marketing opportunity for large corporations to capitalize on, especially corporations owned by white billionaires. On an individual level, honor Juneteenth by supporting Black-owned businesses and stores. Be an ally by learning about Black history and the history of Juneteenth, and by watching shows and movies created by Black directors that center on the Black experience. You can also read books written by Black authors — here is a great Juneteenth reading list.
Corporations and brands should support Black employees with conscious hiring and thoughtful diversity programs. Additionally, this article from Forbes recommends creating scholarships for and donating to HBCU, as well as bringing Black-owned businesses on as suppliers and contractors.
Where Do We Go from Here?
In this wonderful piece in The Nation, Anthony Conwright writes: “I don’t know what will become of Juneteenth in America, but I hope it does not become an approximation of Independence Day. It should be observed in the same spirit as the George Floyd protests: a rebellion in which all pillars of American freedom and capitalism are under indictment.”
Another article in UChicago Magazine delves into the exact language of the famous “Juneteenth order” and seems to perfectly capture the experience that we are, in many ways, still living today: “‘That was always the great puzzle to me, how it came to be that we celebrated and gave parades for this order that had two almost conflicting themes,” [Edward T. Cotham Jr.] says. “The first sentence says you’re free, the last two sentences say you’re free to stay where you are.’”
Celebrate and commemorate Juneteenth as a Black holiday, take time to be with friends and family to honor Black joy. But also reflect on the current state of America, and how much more needs to be done before the freedom promised by General Order Number 3 is truly achieved.
About the Author
AREVA MARTIN is one of the nation’s leading voices for Autism advocacy. An award-winning attorney, advocate, legal and social issues commentator, talk show host, and producer, she is a CNN/HLN legal analyst, former co-host of The Doctors and Face the Truth, and a regular contributor on Good Morning America, ABC World News Tonight, and Dr. Phil. She currently hosts The Special Report with Areva Martin and is the Host and producer of a weekend radio talk show, Areva Martin Out Loud, on KBLA AM 1580. A Harvard Law School graduate, Martin founded Martin & Martin, LLP, a Los Angeles–based civil rights firm, and is the CEO of Butterflly Health, Inc., a mental health technology company.