A Year in Reflection on the National Holiday Announcement of Juneteenth

Juneteenth has been known across history as a liberation celebration for the black community in America, representing the day when the Union Army announced to the slaves on June 19, 1865 that they had been emancipated. While this day has passed by for years without mainstream attention, that changed when President Biden decreed the day as a federal holiday a year ago.

“It is something that is extremely important because…it’s something that has gone quietly by for so many years,” said Faculty Advisor of Rising Black Men Ed Tillett. “For so many years, it’s been this historic moment that hasn’t been talked about about and in recent history it has taken on a new life of its own. It’s encouraged people to dig deeper into the history of America as well as dig deeper into the importance of…this mark in time that our nation takes a turn.”

Tillett explained that while history points towards the Emancipation Proclamation to the start of freedom for the black community, Juneteenth was the actual day that the country let go of its grip on the injustice against the community, allowing for a plethora of times to celebrate black history and liberation.

“We know so many historic moments and historic decisions that have been marked and I think this is one of those things that our nation is acknowledging the experiences of black history,” Tillett said. “We have black history month, which is great, but so often black history is forced into one month and I think making this a national holiday… is taking it a step further for people to understand black history is year round.”

Tillett said that while it’s a painful memory to remember the history of slavery, it’s still joyous that the community can gather to talk of the history of where people have been in this nation and how they can move forward together.

Even while growing up surrounded by his culture, Journalism sophomore Caesar Roundtree had never heard of Juneteenth until the story had came to light during 2020 when race was on the forefront of many issues and then when it was made a holiday. However, this holiday feels more personal than other federal holidays to Roundtree.

“I think a lot of the times in our history we have a lot of holidays that have sketchy history that don’t honor many things like Fourth of July where black people were not necessarily free during that time…so having Juneteenth is an important holiday because its rewriting history is accurate,” said Roundtree.

Roundtree explained that with the nature of the news cycle of the past two years focusing on the racial injustices that the community have suffered, it’s refreshing to have a celebration of culture and history at the frontlines of media coverage.

While creating the national holiday was a step towards respect for the black community, many believe that without other legislation coupled to this decree of actual change that the creation of a national holiday is an example of performative politics where change is not enacted, but instead the appearance of change.

“It is nice to have [Juneteenth]but in this country, holidays…are something that businesses can profit off of and institutions can glorify the profit of…and make it something that makes them feel better,” said Black Students’ Alliance Advisor Jason Worley. “The people that it’s supposed to help celebrate, it gets lost in translation and doesn’t do that.”

Worley explained that this commercialization of the holiday doesn’t reach the major population it is marketed to with money not reaching communities or only high ranking HBCUs, or historically black colleges and universities, that don’t have much relevance in the Midwest. Worley would like to see the profit focused on K-12 predominantly black schools that can provide resources and after school programs that can help children get into HBCUs and other four year schools.

“It’s performative and it sounds good, but where is this money going,” Worley asked. “Where are all these resources going to make it a better society and make a better future for our black youth and black future in general?”

Many believe that legislative change needs to take hold before the holiday is considered a nationwide celebration.

“I think that it’s always important to take [the holiday] into context…and for us not to lose sight of how important other legislation is,” Tillett said. “I think this is one step. This is one part of America acknowledging its history.”

Tillett compared the holiday to Veterans’ Day, where the impact of a community is being acknowledged, but also still requires change and support from the government. Worley also compared it to different holiays but pointed out that it doesn’t get the same respect nationwide, apparent from workplaces not treating it as important enough to take off such as Thanksgiving or Fourth of July.

“What’s important is exploring what things are impacting black America,” Tillett said. “We need to look at issues of finances…education…teaching black history in school…It’s important that we look at what really impacts…and what legislation will impact the black experience.”

Tillett offers that with research and in-depth conversations with black caucuses in government that more change beyond the special day can occur.

Devin Roberts, Events Coordinator for the Black Undergraduate Law Association, explained that there seems to be a lack of continuous support on legislation when it comes to the celebration of black communities beyond the holiday.

“I have mixed feelings about it becoming a national holiday. It passed the Senate almost unanimously, however many of these same people don’t support legislation that would tangibly improve conditions for black people,” Roberts said.

He instead offered that these celebrations could be back by canceling student debt of black communities as well as passing the MORE Act to expunge policing records that affect black communities disproportionately.

Roundtree referenced the police reform Executive Order that President Biden signed on the two year anniversary of George Floyd’s death as one of the legislation that has gone through that backs up the message of Juneteenth for real and measurable change.

“Now that there’s been steps made towards legislation that benefits African American people…even when there’s always more to be done…it will become less performative over time,” Roundtree said.

Roundtree believes that with the idea proposed behind the holiday, the message has shifted to the right side of history, and the hope that this day brings has become more effective over time.

“I think [the holiday] is effective…in the sense that it forces the conversation…like exactly what is Juneteenth and the history behind it,” said Tillett.

Tillett said that with more media coverage, including the power that social media has on activism and outwardly spoken groups, Juneteenth can be the next holiday to enact historical education and change.

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