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.
Even then, the schoolbooks and the teachers' curricula didn't highlight Juneteenth. Griffin's neighborhood, much like that of my mother's, made sure that young people carried the torch for such an important date in, not just black history, but American history.
When she was in school, my mother's uncle would take her and her brother to White Rock Lake every year to celebrate. While I was growing up, she'd wake my brother and me early on a Saturday morning to go to her old neighborhood's Juneteenth parade.
In pockets of America, though, there will be barbecues, festivals, parades and picnics taking place this weekend from Richmond, Va., to Eatonville, Fla. And, of course, in Galveston, where Gen. Granger delivered the good news, there's a weeklong celebration filled with dances, exhibits, a gospel musical, a picnic and a parade.
James Josey has been organizing Galveston's Juneteenth parade since he returned to the island in 1991. A few years ago he told me that he hopes young people will come out and not just enjoy the free food, fun and games but also have a desire to one day take over the planning of all the events to make sure their children understand the holiday's importance.
"It's not just a party or a parade," Josey says. "It's history."
And it's a history that should be celebrated nationwide. Before he became president, Obama supported a call to make Juneteenth a national holiday, but in 2013 he didn't even release a Juneteenth proclamation, as he had in previous years. A bit dismayed, last December Dr. Ron Myers, chairman of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, wrote a letter to the president asking for his support of the "modern Juneteenth movement."
"You can't talk about freedom in America unless you deal with the 19th of June and the Fourth of July," wrote Myers, a 58-year-old physician in Belzoni, Miss. "Juneteenth gives Americans the most opportune time to take a moment to reflect on the legacy of slavery."
Started in 1994, the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation hopes to get legislation passed so that June 19 is designated Juneteenth Independence Day. But so far the resolution has been rejected in the Senate, and Obama has yet to respond to Myers' letter.
In a way, and I hate to say this, the celebration has taken on the same popularity wave as Kwanzaa. Remember when Kwanzaa was "the thing" to celebrate in the '90s? I guess every black holiday has its day. But Juneteenth, which is marked by a real historic event, should not be just a fleeting fad of the black community. It should be celebrated. Robustly.
So this year I'll be continuing my own grassroots celebration in New York City. I'll grab some of my friends, go to a black-owned restaurant and tell the Juneteenth story to anyone who'll listen.
Ideally, the good news will travel fast.
Erin E. Evans is a writer and editor in Brooklyn, N.Y. Follow her on Twitter.