How Juneteenth honors its enslaved forbearers and grapples with modern inequality
Juneteenth became a federal holiday last year, but many people may still not know much about it or what it commemorates. Recently, KUNC's Beau Baker sat down with Dr. Janine Weaver-Douglas, director of the Marcus Garvey Cultural Center at the University of Northern Colorado. They spoke about the history and context of Juneteenth and what it says about addressing racial inequities.
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Beau Baker: Tell me about the origins of Juneteenth and how it's evolved to take on new meaning in the modern world.
Dr. Janine Weaver-Douglas: So, a little bit of backstory. Abraham Lincoln decided to write the Emancipation Proclamation for a variety of reasons. He wrote the Emancipation Proclamation to go into effect Jan. 1, 1863. And there were two conditions for that. One, that the Union had to win the Civil War and that if they won the Civil War, then the Emancipation Proclamation would then go into effect at the end of the war, but it would only go into effect for states that were in the Confederacy. And so the Confederacy is what constitutes the American South that we know today — as far up as Maryland, as far over as Texas. Anything that was not in those states was considered non-Confederate territory and therefore not applicable to the Emancipation Proclamation because they were already "free."
In 1865, when the war ended, Union troops essentially did a tour through the American South to notify enslaved people and plantations that they were now free. June 19 is when they got to the last plantation, and that was in Galveston, Texas. And so they celebrate Juneteenth as their actual liberation day. And it's called Freedom Day or Jubilee Day, depending on sort of where you are in the South.
It is specifically a Black American Southern holiday. So other people can participate and other people can celebrate it because it really is about liberation. And I think liberation is a concept that's universal. And I also think that a lot of us have different relationships with the idea of liberation and what that means. But it specifically honors the fact that those people persisted as enslaved individuals when they were actually free. Juneteenth has been celebrated in the South, specifically in Texas, since 1865.
It was first recognized as a federal holiday in 2021, and that was through the hard work of Opal Lee. Opal Lee was a retired schoolteacher and she fought for at least 60 years to get Juneteenth recognized as a holiday, and that’s what culminated last year. And so that's why you're seeing a lot of institutions, specifically UNC, honoring Juneteenth for the first time this year.
With that federal designation as a holiday, how does that in particular deepen or expand the meaning of this day and this occasion? And is there a danger there of diluting it?
Yes. So the federal designation is simply legitimacy, right? As I said before, Juneteenth has been celebrated for well over 100 years in certain regions of the country. And so it has never been dependent upon any outside recognition to exist. It does require that recognition for legitimate purposes. And so the same way that our country and our governmental organizations and state organizations recognize the 4th of July as a day of observance, receiving that federal designation recognizes Juneteenth as another day of importance.
What it does is it frees up resources so that the people who are celebrating that day can actually take that day. I think the danger — and why I said yes — there's a lot of opportunity for commercialization and there's a lot of opportunity for appropriation, and that is a huge concern. I don't need Juneteenth-themed napkins, right? I need you to leave me alone so that I can have this day and celebrate it in whatever way I want. And that's the thing about American commercialization. We will turn anything into money and that can be deeply offensive.
How does it fit into the very present narrative and a larger narrative of the Black experience in the U.S.?
Juneteenth is relevant in this way to current American experiences, and I would probably argue every experience since Juneteenth — they are all related because they all exist, because Black people are not viewed with the same amount of humanity as white people, as any other culture. And so when you look at the experience — this is large scale, right? I'm talking generally — when you look at the general experiences of being Black in America since 1865, it has been an extended negotiation of humanity.
"When you look at the general experiences of being Black in America since 1865, it has been an extended negotiation of humanity."
I have been arguing to receive my rights piece by piece for 150 years. And then I have to constantly renew those arguments whenever my rights are being repealed. And Juneteenth, much in its quest for legitimization, has been a negotiation of rights. I deserve this. You were born being a person. If I have to earn my peoplehood, I'm going to remember how to. It happened, and I'm going to want to talk about it in order to prevent it from happening to other people.
Is there something that you do hope that our white listeners consider about this holiday if they're not going to be directly involved in a celebration?
I think something that's important to note is that there is an entire genre of life where white people are not at the middle, they are not the center, they are not the focus, they are not the target audience. They are not the intended recipients. They just exist. And so we can exist in a space and we can have a reality that does not center white people at all. That's okay. Right.
The distinction in sort of making the space open for all people is the intention behind it. And so if your intention behind it is centered around education, you are educating yourself or others. If it is about advocacy, I'm understanding how to best use my positionality in my power to open or close doors that create issues or to find spaces and places that can support other people. That is important, right? If it's about activism on some level, I am using this to engage. I'm using this to build relationships. I want to be in community. I want to understand how I can better ally or advocate for others. That's important to all three of those intentions. Bring white people into a non-white space and have them share and converse and learn and understand. All of those things can be met.
The need is when you leave that space, what are you going to do with that information? You know, an important part is understanding how we got here. There's a reason why Juneteenth was necessary. In that reason (that most people are not comfortable with) is that there was a two-and-a-half year period where those plantation owners knew that those people were free and didn't tell them. So there's a very relevant example of how a person can harm another person that you can then use to examine your own relationships.
And you can say, okay, how am I gatekeeping information or opportunities? How am I relinquishing my responsibility to advocate or support? How am I not stepping out of the way and putting people up to amplify that are better, more appropriate voices than me? How not finding or seeking homegrown talent in my neighborhood or in on my campus instead of just pulling people that make me feel comfortable or that look or sound like me. That stuff happens after.
And so my hope is that at a minimum, you take the knowledge that's presented. You take the interaction you've been given. And you take the understanding of why this is important and you propel that into action. If you choose not to do that, it's an awareness opportunity at its heart. As long as you are not harming another person in pursuit of your own awareness and education, it's not bad.
Suggested Juneteenth reading, watching and activities compiled by the Marcus Garvey Cultural Center: