Why Juneteenth's Not My Thing


I am John Hamilton McWhorter, the fifth. The first John Hamilton McWhorter was a slave. This Thursday is Juneteenth, when I might be inclined to celebrate the emancipation of John Hamilton McWhorter, the first.

Or not. Truth to tell, I have never quite gotten the hang of Juneteenth.

I suppose I should. What could be wrong, after all, with celebrating slaves in America being freed? Technically, Juneteenth arose to mark the day slaves in Texas were freed, but over the years it has been embraced nationwide as a celebration of emancipation.


But at the end of the day, I just can't wrap my head around celebrating the fact that someone else freed my ancestors. It puts too much focus on a time when we were so starkly in the down position. Juneteenth seems to be about what someone else did.

Whites had been crucial to keeping the Abolitionist movement going. Certainly blacks worked alongside them: The career of Frederick Douglass is Exhibit A. And there were more slave revolts than we are often aware of.

However, we cannot say that blacks in America made their freedom happen. Freedom happened partly as the result of whites making other whites see the error of their ways. And Abraham Lincoln's commitment was to preserving the Union as a political arrangement, which inherently included abolishing slavery. And even then, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all slaves, just slaves in the Confederacy, over which Lincoln had no jurisdiction.

So, yes, blacks played a part—but if for some bizarre reason blacks had not participated in the Abolitionist movement and had never revolted, it is thoroughly plausible that emancipation would have happened anyway.

Think about it: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was something that happened because we made it happen. As we have recently revisited in the wake of Hillary Clinton's famous comment, Lyndon B. Johnson was the one who pushed it through Congress. However, he wouldn't have done what he did absent the ferocious tenacity of Dr. King, his black comrades and the countless black people who gave their time, energy and sometimes their lives to battling Jim Crow to its knees and changing the nation's mind on bigotry.

Juneteenth has also always left me a little cold because of what happened after slaves were freed.


I have often written that truly understanding black strength means keeping in mind the all-black business districts that thrived in the late 19th and early 20th century—when lynching was a national sport and no one needed to have their inner racist carefully teased out with canny psychological studies, since pretty much everybody thought of blacks as lesser beings.

Yet the black business was largely driven by blacks who had been freedmen long before Emancipation, and their descendants. Slaves, upon release, generally led lives of miserable sharecropping and other menial labor, and their descendants, as often as not, migrated north to end up penned into segregated slums.


So, they were "free"—okay. But I'm not sure I want to barbecue meat in celebration of the lives depicted in books like Richard Wright's Black Boy or Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land.

Again, however, a people need ways to celebrate. Martin Luther King Day is in the winter, right after the holidays, and is as much about his death as his accomplishments, and so that can't quite do the job. Kwanzaa is in the winter, too, and is more about the home than family reunions.


To me, the real day of celebration—one that I always think about as it passes—is not June 19 but July 2. That was the day the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed. The Civil Rights Act had as profound an impact on the fate of blacks in the United States as Emancipation. Say what you want about how far we have to go, but the official dismantling of Jim Crow was a watershed event in the history of human affairs.

Some seem not to think so: But I wonder if they would feel the same way after spending just three days in 1950 trying to do the things they consider ordinary like eating in good restaurants, trying on clothes at stores or seeking work at a mainstream law firm—and even in Pittsburgh or New Haven, not just the deep South.


Plus, July 2 was also the actual day that the American colonies declared independence from Great Britain (July 4 was a day of inconsequential business), such that the signing of the Civil Rights Act on that same day in 1964 could be seen as especially apt and commemorative, righting an evil that had besmirched the great experiment for two centuries.

I can even imagine July 2 becoming a kind of alternate Independence Day celebration for black Americans, occurring around the same time as everyone else's July 4, but with a special in-group meaning.


Juneteenth, on the other hand, has always struck me as celebrating the lives of characters in books like Beloved and Sounder.

Rather than lifting a glass to what America offered to my great-great-grandfather and his son—and all that was still denied them after that offering, I am more inclined to lift one to the America in which my father could become the student affairs coordinator of a mainstream university, which would have been unthinkable 10 years before it happened.


I am always more interested in what we did rather than what somebody did to us.

John McWhorter, a culture and politics Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is a columnist for the New York Sun and author of "Losing the Race."


John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.