Juneteenth: Freedom, Liberation, and Reckoning

June 17, 2021

Juneteenth is now a federal holiday. 

Juneteenth commemorates the end of chattel slavery in the US, on June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers reached the farthest end of the Confederacy and informed the enslaved Black population that they were now free citizens. For many Black Americans, Juneteenth represents the long journey for Black freedom and liberation. It is a celebration of Black joy and resilience, and a reminder that the journey is not yet complete.

While the official recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday is long overdue, history shows us that symbolic gestures alone are insufficient to achieve racial justice. At the same time that Congress is moving to recognize the holiday, many politicians are actively working to undermine our democracy and the very concepts of freedom and liberation that Juneteenth represents.

In the past year alone, we have witnessed a wave of voting restriction bills across the country, efforts to ban the discussion of systemic racism in our schools, and a violent white supremacist attack on our Capitol and democracy. 

The historical refusal of those in power to fully acknowledge and repair the deep-seated racism in our country’s institutions brings us to the present moment of inequality, denial, and vast racial disparities in life outcomes. 

For too long, we have been sold a rosy version of America’s racial history. Juneteenth is a reminder that the story from our grade-school history books is not the whole story—that after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, freedom did not reach all enslaved persons for another two-and-a-half years. 

What other parts of Black history—and the US’s history of racial oppression—have been concealed, smoothed over, or taught through rose-colored lenses? The list is long.

This moment demands that we tell the whole truth, including the brutal history of white supremacy and state-sanctioned violence against Black, brown, and Indigenous communities. It demands that we take action.