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On Making Juneteenth a National Holiday

June 18, 2021

Lincoln Park 1

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy that June 19, or Juneteenth, has been made a federal holiday to commemorate the emancipation of America’s slaves. 

What bothers me is the narrative that is being constructed around the Juneteenth holiday. Why is it that Republican lawmakers in Congress, who universally support their party’s unceasing and increasingly successful efforts to suppress the votes of Black and other minority Americans and who have made Critical Race Theory a conservative bogeyman to scare white people, should so eagerly embrace making Juneteenth a holiday? Could there possibly be another agenda here?

Of course there is. If we now have not one but TWO holidays that celebrate Black America, that means that racial discrimination is no longer a problem in this country, doesn’t it? It’s all fixed, right? Nothing to see here, folks, so let’s just move on. Look, we gave you another day off! America isn’t a racist country, and this proves it. After all, that was the rationale for the Supreme Court’s 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act:  We don’t have a problem anymore, because all of that was in the past–now it’s all fine. Hey, Walmart is selling the t-shirt!

The critic Hilton Als, in a 1999 essay on the great comedic and dramatic talent Richard Pryor, observed: “People are quick to make monuments of anything they live long enough to control.” Kaitlyn Greenidge cited that aperçu in a New York Times op-ed, saying “I can’t help but think this is the impetus behind the rush to canonize Juneteenth as a national holiday. I worry the lessons of Juneteenth will become lost because we have seen the promising visions of Black freedom-dreaming co-opted before.” Just look at how Martin Luther King, Jr. and even Malcolm X are now piously–and very selectively–cited by politicians who would have regarded them with the same fear and loathing that most of white America did when they were alive and active.

Back in the segregated Texas of my childhood, Juneteenth was the one day out of the year when black folks could go to the public parks and zoos (not swimming pools, however), and of course, white people stayed strictly away. It’s facts like these that are in danger of being whitewashed away in the Disneyfied version now being promulgated. 

Ironically, this is exactly why Critical Race Theory and initiatives like The 1619 Project are needed even more if we as a nation are ever to understand and come to terms with this country’s ugly racial history. Instead, what do we get? A concerted Republican effort to suppress study and teaching of America’s real racist culture as being “divisive” and “unpatriotic”. Teaching of Critical Race Theory has been banned from being taught in public schools in Texas, Florida, and at least 3 other Republican-governed states, and several other states have similar bans in the works. Texas Senator Ted Cruz proclaimed that “Critical race theory is bigoted, it is a lie, and it is every bit as racist as the klansmen in white sheets.” If Republicans can suppress the black vote, why not continue to suppress black history? After all, the holiday itself commemorates the suppression for two years of the news that slaves in Texas had been emancipated.

So yes, let’s make Juneteenth a holiday. But we can’t use another holiday to pretend that we’ve fixed the problem of structural racial injustice in our society. 



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