155 years – A century and a half… Six (6) generations

Last June amid global pandemic and in response to the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Arbery, Daunte Wright, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude, and all the others whose names and lives the media did not capture, there was a national uproar. We saw, and participated in, marches, online vigils, calls to action, protests, and demands for justice. The non-Black community of allies vowed to ‘do better’ “learn more”, ‘be accountable” “own my privilege” and there was a collective feeling that maybe this time – we, as a nation, would take a confident step forward in turning ‘intention’ into ‘action’.

All over the country, and here in Orange County, there was a groundswell – bookstores were sold out of titles like White Fragility and So You Want to Talk About Race and How to Be an Anti-Racist, online streaming sites were inundated with requests for documentaries on Black History, Black people were bombarded with questions from strangers, friends and even family asking “What can I do? How do I help fix this?” And organizations, like ours, saw massive demands for trainings on Implicit Bias, Civil Rights History, and our programmatic response to the upswell, reStructure. For the past 12 months, many in this county have been vocal about ‘shifting’ our county and challenging systemic racism. But folx, being vocal is not change. Change is action. Change is disruptive. Change is not a holiday.

As our first ever Juneteenth National Independence Day rolled out this past Saturday, I found myself wondering if this was a ‘good’ thing.  Questions arose regarding what is the purpose, what is the value of having Juneteenth declared a national holiday? Many of our national holidays are meant to be days of celebration of the national importance of an individual. The exceptions are the holidays that commemorate national events or groups that shifted our understanding of what it means to be American – Labor Day to commemorate the manual laborers of this country, Memorial Day to honor those who died in service to this country, Veteran’s Day to uplift those who serve/d this country in uniform and Independence Day to remember those that fought for the ‘freedom of the people, by  the people and for the people’.

What then is Juneteenth? Is it a holiday of celebration? If so, are we celebrating the delayed notification of emancipation to those enslaved in Texas in 1866? Why would we celebrate a delayed freedom? If not a celebration, then is it meant to be commemorative holiday? A day to commemorate the thousands of enslaved Texans who finally were informed of their delayed emancipation? And if it is a commemoration, is it a commemoration only for the descendants of the enslaved? What role does it play in the lives of those not descended from enslaved Black People? Can a mandated holiday address matters of historical inequity? Can a mandated holiday address matters of national accountability, national acknowledgement, national healing? Isn’t that a lot to expect of 24 hours?

Black folx have been commemorating Juneteenth for 155 years – gathering in groups both small and large, to share community, reaffirming ourselves and each other in the midst of a country that systemically works to erase, ignore and dehumanize us – we have done this without federal sanctioning on the ‘national importance’ of the day because we have always known the importance of remembering those who dared dream of a ‘more just life’ and those who fought for the ‘more just life’ even at the risk of their own lives. We have commemorated those who persisted, those who wept, those who just couldn’t do it anymore and those who said, “maybe not in my lifetime, but I’m working for yours”. We know that a federally mandated holiday, while a kind gesture, is, in the end, just a hollow apology for the systemic racism that continues to operate within our country. We know it to be lip service meant to appease shame and guilt and do little more than provided a pretty distraction from the demands and needs of those still struggling under the oppressive norms of White Supremacy. And yet, we also know Juneteenth to be a day that is deserving of national recognition and national understanding – after all, our history is also American history and American legacy.

So, it was with sadness that I watched this nation elevate this first Juneteenth into a commercialized optic full of pretty imagery draped in ‘black, green and red’ and full of soundbites that rang of gift card sincerity. And we did it within 48 hours from the stroke of the President’s pen declaring the holiday. This beautiful ‘good intention’ is clothed in Performative Allyship – an allyship that centers the ‘good deeds’ of the allies, for example their interest in ‘learning more’ about Juneteenth, “Can I make a donation to support a Black artist? Let’s go to the Juneteenth festival (that has been held for years in this community and yet, you are only now going), Did you see my post/statement about how Juneteenth is so important?” – and asks Black folx to continue to do the emotional labor of educating, writing, speaking, and teaching ‘everyone’ about the actual meaning of Juneteenth while still navigating systemic racism in our present lives.

All of this begs the question then of who should take the lead in uplifting Juneteenth as a national holiday.  Should it be the Black community since it is our ancestors that were deprived of emancipation? Should it be the White community as an act of historical accountability? Should it be POC communities that looked to Black Civil Rights as a template for shaping their own movements for equity as a sign of solidarity?  Or should it be a collaborative, collective response that asks us all to consider how power sharing/responsibility is playing out? A national day of commemoration is a collaborative day – not a day where one community is responsible for making sure everyone else remembers them.

However, I wonder if we, as a nation, ‘learned more’? Have we put into action all the ‘good intentions’ we spoke so earnestly about? As businesses and organizations scrambled to inform their employees that last Friday would be a “paid holiday” and as people celebrated having a short week and a longer weekend for cookouts or a day to ‘catch up on stuff’, have we done enough? Have we read enough books, watched enough documentaries, read enough blogs, talked to enough ‘diverse’ people, attended enough workshops… are we ‘less racist’? My conclusion – our collective vocabulary has improved over the years, but our actions remain stagnant at an institutional and societal level. We talk the talk, but we have yet to walk the walk. Policy to change a national holiday – yes! Policy to create federal tracking of police brutality cases – no.

The value and purpose of Juneteenth is accountability. A day where we look back to see how far we’ve come and look forward to see how far we still must go. This new federal holiday does not change systemic racism nor the impact it has every day on millions of people in this country… no holiday has that power. What this inaugural holiday did show us though is that it is possible to create a change in our national agenda – it is possible for systemic power to use that power to enact policy and process change. It is possible for a nation to respond to that change in less than 48 hours – companies can change work schedules, media can focus on disseminating information on policy change without delay, people can show up to community events that they’ve never attended, donations can be made to help support artists and community centers and those who are struggling… Juneteenth is about commemorating the past and it can be about celebrating our collective future. Do the work today. Do the work tomorrow. Turn intention into action. That is what Juneteenth is about.

Blog by Valerie Dickson, DEI Strategist at OC Human Relations