REPOST: “Why” Part Two: Why I celebrate Juneteenth
Bringing back a post from last year discussing Juneteenth. Don’t forget your red soda water.
I remember growing up in good old Paris, Texas and one day realizing that there was an extra holiday on the calendar. I recall having a good understanding of Christmas, Thanksgiving, July 4th and Halloween, but all of a sudden around the age of seven or eight it was like Juneteenth came out of nowhere.
I eventually learned that Juneteenth was a uniquely Texas holiday and meant more than just cutting out on the job. A Juneteenth newsletter I received from Cora Marshall Gallery does a good job summing up this unique tradition.
The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves within the rebellious states are, and henceforward shall be, free.” It took until June 19th, 1865, two and a half years later, for the news that slavery had been abolished to reach Galveston, Texas. Even so, this news inspired a time of celebration and joy at started in Texas and spread across the nation.
On June 19th – later to be known as Juneteenth – in Galveston, Texas, African Americans also gathered to celebrate. The festivities centered around family, friends, and community and was a time for thanksgiving, reflection, remembering, and prayer.
In counter-point to their experiences as “Property of the Massa”, the freed men and woman dressing up and served up a bounty of food which included a main course featuring – of course – barbecue and red soda water.
Still, through my teen years I enjoyed Juneteenth celebrations because it gave us another excuse to go to the park, shoot off fireworks, and hangout. Besides, celebrating the end of slavery seemed like a good thing even if the news was a little late.
In my adult years as I began to rub elbows with the black bourgeoisies, many of them scoffed at the June 19th holiday. “Why would you celebrate slaves in Texas spending an extra 2 ½ years in bondage?” they would ask. I have to admit, it’s a pretty good question.
This caused me to really examine my feelings about Juneteenth and whether the occasion really was worth celebrating. I eventually came to a decision that will have me firing up the grill on Thursday.
I will continue to observe Juneteenth because our ancestors deemed the occasion worth of celebration. As we’ve gotten more and more educated, we get further and further away from the wisdom born out of the struggle of our people.
It’s like black folks I hear lamenting the gospel writer for the lyrics “Lord you don’t have to move the mountain, but give me the strength.” Now that we have been to seminary, we know that we can ask God to move the mountain. But give me that old time religion, its good enough for me.
Juneteenth was born from the mind and hearts of black folks, which already makes it tough for some of my middle class brothers and sisters to swallow. It’s now celebrated in many states other than Texas.
I remember a summer I spent in Muskegon, Michigan where black folks there had a Juneteenth program. It was odd seeing them observe Juneteenth as an African holiday rather than African-American one, but from my point of view it’s good to see black people celebrating anything positive.
Even though I’ll be working on Juneteenth for only the third time in my career, I’ll still take time to commemorate the end of our people’s forced servitude in this country. We rejoice not because they let us go, but because they couldn’t hold us down. We rejoice not because of Abraham Lincoln’s supposed conviction and generosity, but because of the strength and resilience of our people.
So we will honor those who came before us and reflect on their struggle for freedom. I remember my dad talking about “red soda water” in conjunction with Juneteenth like it was yesterday. I will say that if I barbecue, I’m going to pass on the cutoff jean shorts he used to wear that are also part of that memory.