A Primer On Juneteenth

Photo: Twitter

by Amilcar and Demetria Shabazz

On June 19, 2021, for the first time ever, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts celebrated Juneteenth as an official state holiday. For those who are unaware of this historic day and want to know what it is all about and how to act, let us provide you with a little primer. This primer has five points: 

1. History matters; 2. Black Joy; 3. The Struggle Continues; 4. African Amity; and 5. We Gon’ Be Alright.

The basic definition of Juneteenth is that it celebrates the day, June 19,1865, that the Union Army militarily occupied Texas at what was then its largest city, Galveston. Major General Gordon Granger read out a field order that declared that the racist practice of enslaving human beings, notably of humans of African descent, was forevermore dead. The order is succinct and to the point, a mere 95 words:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

African people had been waiting to hear those words for a mighty long time and they translated them into one word: Jubilee! Which brings up Point #2:

Juneteenth was the fulfilment of the words of the Holy Book the enslaved believed referred to their oppressed condition, that they would one day be delivered from slavery just as Moses brought his people out of bondage. Juneteenth was a time to “pah-tay!” It was observed with picnics and parades, speeches and song, music and dance, and exhibits of history and art. An anonymous reporter in a white newspaper saw the following at a Juneteenth event:

“The old plantation melodies …were transformed into a new song and the sunshine of the dreams that once dwelt in their hearts burst full and fair upon them as they both felt and realized the fullness of the freedom that is now theirs—not only to enjoy but to perpetuate….The conclusion of the day went out amid the pleasures that always cluster about the ball-room (sic), and if a memory of olden times came back from the ringing shout of the dancers as the ‘break-down’ was getting the benefit of their ‘best licks,’ it is to be hoped that the contrast suggested more of pleasure than regret. The colored people of Galveston certainly deported themselves creditably in celebrating ‘their 4th of July.’” – Flake’s Bulletin, 20 June 1878.

Ring shouts, song and dance, a veritable celebration of Black Joy, such is the essence of the Juneteenth experience. It is our genuine Independence Day, and it is open to everyone who shares its mission: Enjoying and perpetuating freedom, especially the freedom of African people that was denied by lash, law, and lynch rope for hundreds of years. For Texans of African descent like the authors, we date African slavery from 1528, with the presence of Esteban (which was his slave name) of Azemmour, Morocco, to Juneteenth 1865, or 337 years. Africans in Texas invented Juneteenth and its very name which is an elision of the month of June with its 19th day. The celebration was and is an expression of self-determination. 

Originally authority figures did not sanction or support the African American created tradition. People took the day off from work to commune with family, friends and strangers and be joyful, reflecting on our strength and the “stony road” we continue “to trod.” As a family, we have celebrated the day our entire lives but it gained wide-spread popularity in the 1970s when the holiday became part of how the Black Power and Black Arts Movement revitalized and made “our lives matter.” Black politicians, elected as a result of the legal changes the Civil Rights Movement won, and the cultural development wrought by Black Arts “artivists” and Black Power activists began to push for a state holiday. Notably, Representative Al Edwards of Texas authored and sponsored House Bill 1016 in 1979, making June 19 (“Juneteenth”) a state paid holiday. Juneteenth magic spread to Oklahoma and other surrounding states, and in the 1980s, Juneteenth was celebrated as far west as Colorado and California. As a couple of activists / artivists, we helped to spread the celebration in Alabama in the 1990s, especially in Tuscaloosa and the Black Belt.

Most recently the holiday has become part of national politics. Last year, President Donald Trump told The Wall Street Journal, on June 17, 2020, that before his rally in Tulsa, OK, “nobody had ever heard of” Juneteenth. Well, the former Governor of Texas, President George W. Bush entertained the idea in 2000 of making it a national holiday, but September 11 and the wars that followed engulfed his presidency and the Juneteenth idea was dropped. After Trump’s Tulsa rally, PolitiFact published a fact-check that rated his claim as “pants on fire” false. To the Trumpian question “how come Black Obama in 8 years never mentioned Juneteenth?” we find that former president Obama was an Illinois State Senator and was one of many co-sponsors of SB1028, a bill that made Juneteenth a state-recognized holiday in Illinois back in 2003.

The Struggle Continues
Pushing Trump’s lies to the trash bin, we come to our primer’s third point, that Juneteenth is about our Continuous Struggle. “When we were eight years in power,” as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, Obama made official White House statements on Juneteenth each year he was in the Oval Office from 2009 on (except for 2013, when he was in Berlin). Here’s an excerpt from his 2016 Statement on the Observance of Juneteenth:

On this Juneteenth, we remember that struggle [for equality and justice for African Americans] as we reflect on how far we’ve come as a country. The slaves of Galveston knew their freedom was only a first step, just as the bloodied foot soldiers who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge 100 years later knew they had to keep marching. Juneteenth is a time to recommit ourselves to the work that remains undone.

These were not Obama’s last words on Juneteenth either. Just last year he tweeted Jamelle Bouie’s New York Times opinion piece “Why Juneteenth Matters”:

Obama makes a point about what we all need to understand about Juneteenth: On this day we party like it’s 1999 (putting a little Prince up in this piece), but we know that, come June 20th the struggle continues. Think Derrick Bell here on the permanence of racism; reflect on “the faces at the bottom of the well.”  You can go to the stores if you have shopping to do, but on Juneteenth we try to resist commercialization and capitalism. Give the consumerism a rest and try to go within, to your place of joy and resilience. Reduce, reuse, recycle and leave wherever you party as clean or cleaner than it was on June 18th.

In Houston, where we lived for many years, we lived very close to the oldest park in the city and the oldest in the entire state of Texas. Black Folx, Black-white wealth gap be damned, started collecting money to buy property dedicated to Juneteenth celebrations. Reverend Jack Yates, a Baptist minister who had been enslaved, led the crusade, and his church, Antioch Baptist, and Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church formed the Colored People’s Festival and Emancipation Park Association. In 1872, they put down $1,000 on ten acres of open land as home for their Juneteenth celebration.  In honor of their freedom, they named it Emancipation Park. Today Emancipation Park and Emancipation Community Center are located at 3018 Emancipation Ave. in Houston’s Third Ward. It was the sole public park available to African Americans after the City of Houston began creating racially segregated parks for white folks. Residents strive to keep the park clean and up-to-date for community use today and for future generations. Powerful forces of gentrification are buying up land all around the park and displacing Black folx from these historic areas, but as we’ve said already, the struggle continues.

African Amity
And here is where our fourth point about African Amity comes up. Juneteenth provides an opportunity to get to know Black folks, our joy and our pain. Ask if you can, if you are not doing so already, to worship together at a Black church. You can’t just show up to service because white supremacists have so targeted black churches, and after the massacre at Mother Emanuel, you need to give us a heads up out of respect and a sense of security if it is okay to join in worship. Got a Black neighbor down the street you’ve never met, bake them some bread or wrap up a cake and knock and leave it on their doorsteps with a card introducing yourself. (Shout out to our neighbors on Chapel Road where this happens frequently). Yes, you can even write “Happy Juneteenth” on it. If they take offense, blame it on us and tell them to Google the Shabazz’s and we’ll be glad to talk to them. We think most Black folx won’t mind and will reciprocate at whatever level of amity they are comfortable with. As they see you are genuinely friendly there is the possibility that friendship can grow. Amity is more than the street the Jones Library is on. Amity is a deep idea, as Ray Elliott said when he got this town to embrace race amity:

The reality is that there is only the one human race. We are a single people, inhabiting the planet Earth, one human family bound together in a common destiny, a single entity created from one same substance, obligated to ‘be even as one soul’. Recognition of this reality is the antidote to racism, xenophobia, and intolerance in all its forms. It should, accordingly, be the guiding principle behind the discussion, deliberations and ultimate output of the World Conference against Racism.

We Gon’ Be Alright
Please know that it is a very white thing to try to take over and dominate everything. Don’t do that with Juneteenth. Be kind, listen and learn, fall back a little and follow Black folx leadership on Juneteenth. Sit and wait and support us. When white folks start to be the historians and the experts and the authority on Juneteenth that is precisely when it will cease to be anything worth celebrating.

Finally, what Elliott says about amity takes us to our fifth point: We Gon’ Be Alright. Even if you stay away from Juneteenth celebrations and if you are too scared to try to become friends with an African American, read a book, watch a video, listen to music by Africans in whatever genre you enjoy, make it a day where you enjoy as we enjoy. We will survive and ultimately thrive because Òrìṣà has already made it so through us. In the critical essay “Àṣẹ: Verbalizing and Visualizing Creative Power through Art,” our comrade and friend Rowland Abiodun, has shown how we bring life or “vital force” into the world that ensures our future. He sums this power up saying: Outwardly expressed through verbal, visual or performing arts, separately or jointly, àṣẹ imbues sound, space and matter with energy to restructure existence, transform the physical world and also to control it.” What he writes about the Yoruba aesthetic can be extended to our New African experience on this side of the pond. Juneteenth is a day of power that sustains us. It is like the bringing of kola nut. It is how we have and will continue to make our lives matter, here by the rivers of Babylon. “So let the words of our mouth/And the meditation of our heart/Be acceptable in Thy sight/Over-i!” Join us on Juneteenth and “Sing the songs of freedom” that frees us all. 

Juneteenth Festivities in. 2022: SATURDAY JUNE 18 and SUNDAY June 19: Juneteenth Weekend. Saturday: Heritage Walking Tour. Tour begins 11:00 a.m. at the West Cemetery on Triangle Street and ends at 5:00 p.m. at The Drake. A collaboration between Ancestral Bridges and the Amherst Historical Society Museum to celebrate Juneteenth in Amherst, MA. This walking tour explores the unique history and contributions of generations of Black families in Amherst curated and guided by descendants. Free and open to the public. Sunday: Jubilee on the Common. Music, food, and community beginning at noon. More details to come.

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8 thoughts on “A Primer On Juneteenth

  1. There’s 3 or 4 invitations right there (above)!
    No need 1st request or ‘wrapped cake & note’ needed.
    It is offered AND a wonderful time.
    – -Some Ol White Guy
    Chad Fuller

  2. Thank you, Doctors Shabazz, for penning this essay describing so eloquently the history and meaning of Juneteenth, offering also the political efforts toward widespread recognition. I got a taste of the joy you describe at the event at the Mill District last Saturday. You both were fabulous on the cat walk! Thank you for your continued leadership and guidance.

  3. Correction – I miswrote “both” above. It was Dr. Amilcar Shabazz and Andrea Battle, in fabulous hats and outfits, on the catwalk.

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