Every year I ask my Twitter friends, “How are y’all celebrating Juneteenth?” Usually I get just a handful of half-baked responses and a few retweets. “Go to some crappy festival,” one Californian said.
“Being black,” said a college friend from Atlanta.
And my favorite response over the years has come from one of my brother’s friends, who said she’d commemorate the holiday simply by “not slavin’.”
There is always, seemingly, such a low level of enthusiasm to celebrate what is often called Black Independence Day.
A quick primer: On June 19, 1865, Gen. Gordon Granger stood on the balcony of the Ashton Villa in Galveston, Texas, to declare that President Abraham Lincoln had set all slaves free. This news, of course, came two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and a couple of months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox in Virginia.
Belated freedom, but freedom nonetheless.
Worthy of a celebration? I’d say so, indeed. So why is it that some black people, especially Gen Yers, seem to be less than enthusiastic about celebrating emancipation? OK, so maybe you’re not from Texas and your ancestors already knew that they were free before June 19, 1865. That doesn’t matter. We should collectively celebrate on one day, no matter the date, no matter where you’re from.
Think about it. How many holidays do you “celebrate” that have nothing to do with you? St. Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo, anyone? I’ve chugged my fair share of Irish car bombs for St. Patrick’s Day to tip my hat to the Irish ancestors that we may—or may not—have. And of course, I’ve thrown back some margaritas for Cinco de Mayo.
“I hope all of y’all plan to go this hard for Juneteenth,” I once tweeted after a day of Cinco de Mayo festivities. Now, I’m not saying we should all go get drunk in honor of our ancestors. One year, I went to a Juneteenth picnic in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, in New York. The attendance was low, and most of the people celebrating were my grandmother’s age. Somewhere between slavery, desegregation, black middle-class flight to suburbia and President Obama, Juneteenth excitement, in some places, has become lukewarm.
James Griffin was a math teacher and football coach-turned-principal at Hamilton Park School, my mother’s elementary school, when the school desegregated in the late 1960s. He grew up in Greenville, Texas, in the ’30s and ’40s and had learned about “the 19th of June,” as it used to be called, through the celebrations the city had every year. “If we had not learned about it the way we did [through citywide celebrations], we wouldn’t have known about it,” he told me a few years ago.