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Why do we celebrate Juneteenth? How can we do so meaningfully? IU experts weigh in

Jun 12, 2023

A young girl sits on a man's shoulders; both are wearing Juneteenth T-shirts Photo by Getty Images North America

Juneteenth is a holiday celebrating African American freedom from slavery and a time to engage and honor African American cultural heritage. On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill that made Juneteenth the 11th holiday recognized by the federal government, and Juneteenth became an official holiday at Indiana University in 2022.

Celebrating Juneteenth has become more common for many Americans in recent years, and the Indiana University community will have the opportunity to honor and celebrate the day with special events and awareness programs.

Still, it’s important to remember the history behind the holiday and its significance today. We caught up with Darryl Heller, director of the IU South Bend Civil Rights Heritage Center, and Jakobi Williams, Ruth N. Halls Associate Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at IU Bloomington, to discuss how to meaningfully honor Juneteenth.

Question: What is the story of Juneteenth, and why do we celebrate the holiday on June 19?

Daryl Heller Darryl Heller, director of the IU South Bend Civil Rights Heritage Center. Photo courtesy of IU South Bend

Heller: June 19 is the day that Union troops entered Galveston, Texas, and informed some 200,000 enslaved people that they were actually free and no longer subject to the coerced labor of their former masters. And this is significant because it is often considered to be the date that the last enslaved people were emancipated in the United States.

However, it is important to dispel several myths about Juneteenth so that we can more accurately celebrate it. The first is that it is often said that Juneteenth occurred almost two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, but we have to remember that the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free all of the slaves. It only impacted states that were in rebellion against the United States and, importantly, it was unenforceable until Union troops arrived.

The second myth that is important to dispel is that Juneteenth itself, even though it occurred later than emancipation for many enslaved people, didn’t actually mark the end of slavery in the United States. Slavery in the United States was embedded in our Constitution and was a legal construct. So, full emancipation and the end of slavery did not happen until December of 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, almost six months after Juneteenth.

Q: Why has Juneteenth become more widely celebrated in recent years?

Williams: Juneteenth has been widely celebrated by African Americans for generations. But after the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others that we watched at home during COVID on our televisions, activists helped the holiday gain traction and used Juneteenth to celebrate the continued struggles of African Americans.

This spirit of activism has forced African Americans and other Americans to look at each other as humans and to have time during the summer months when we are doing most of our celebrating and our summer vacations and experience so much joy to also have a time and a place for African Americans to experience joy as well.

Q: Why should Juneteenth be a federal holiday, and why should Americans continue to celebrate the end of slavery?

Jakobi Williams Jakobi Williams, Ruth N. Halls Associate Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies. Photo courtesy of Indiana University

Williams: It’s important that Juneteenth is a federal holiday so that all Americans can celebrate the continued struggles of African Americans. It is important to have all Americans understand the struggle and strife of African Americans, especially in the summer, because we celebrate Independence Day on July 4.

African Americans are also celebrating their independence and their freedom on June 19 as a result of the end of slavery. It’s very much an American holiday, as it celebrates the end of the Civil War, which resulted in the most American deaths ever.

Heller: White supremacy continues to impact people of African descent in part because it was the ideological understanding that buttressed racialized slavery and is the ideological view that possessing white skin makes one superior to those who do not. White supremacy as an ideological construct remains embedded in our structures and institutions, and we can see it manifest in things like the wealth gap between blacks and whites, health disparities and mass incarceration.

Q: How can people celebrate Juneteenth meaningfully?

Heller: The best way to acknowledge Juneteenth in a meaningful way is for people to come together in community and celebrate the joy of being together through food and cultural events. And, most importantly, we should reflect on the history that brought us here. It is critical that we learn and understand history fully and accurately, lest we succumb to the false sense that we have accomplished more than we have and that the work is over when in fact it is not.

Williams: I would ask Americans to look at this day as a day of remembrance but also a day to be active on behalf of humanity. It is an active, involved, participatory holiday. We typically have picnics and barbecues, but people also donate their time and money to activist causes. It is very important for all Americans to participate in the holiday by engaging with causes that help African Americans overcome some of the hurdles that they still face.

It is very important that we as Americans celebrate it together, as we do on holidays like Memorial Day or July 4. We should overcome the racially polarized climate we have today and come together as humans and Americans to celebrate the struggles and accomplishments of African Americans.

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