Last year on June 17th, President Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday. While many of my Facebook friends thought it a cute, well-meaning gesture, I treated it similarly to when putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 was in vogue or Nancy Pelosi cosplayed a Wakandan — I started huffing and puffing. I thought they kind of missed the point. Like how Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer missed out on the meaning of Juneteenth.
“I don’t know if that’s like a new thing. The courthouse is closed…Sorry, it’s something I should know, I guess…I didn’t get the memo, or maybe I missed it…by the way, there is like a hint that it has something to do with Father’s Day,” Scherer said.
Her ignorance is forgivable. And I don’t mean this as a pejorative — she clearly was just unaware and didn’t know. But another wave of ignorance is coming. The ignant kind, the kind that took Harry Belafonte back when MLK Jr. confided in him that he wondered if the whole incorporation thing was a good idea.
I remember the last time we were together, at my home, shortly before he was murdered. He seemed quite agitated and preoccupied, and I asked him what the problem was. “I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply,” he said. “We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”
That statement took me aback. It was the last thing I would have expected to hear, considering the nature of our struggle, and I asked him what he meant. “I’m afraid that America may be losing what moral vision she may have had,” he answered. “And I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.”
For those who aren’t in the know, Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. If you’d like a more in-depth discussion on the topic, you can watch a panel discussion I was part of for the holiday here. Now that my self-plugging is over, I’d like to ask an honest question. In a world where people were irrationally angry that some guy had the gall to protest that people who look like him were being murdered by the police, what made President Biden think that Americans as a whole were ready to think positively about the end of slavery?
I’ve come to believe that we are not ready for Juneteenth.
Don’t get me wrong — Black folks have been celebrating Juneteenth for a while. The culture is rich! The cookouts (not barbecue, mind you), red flavored sodas and things to chomp on, the reading of the Emancipation, a bittersweet celebration of the camaraderie coupled with hallowed reverence for the people who shouldered the yoke of slavery years past when it was formally outlawed. But something gets lost when deeply personal celebrations become mass appeal, federally sanctioned holidays for people who don’t hold those traditions dear. Know why? Because remember the guy above who couldn’t comment on if he was pro- or anti-slavery? He gets the day off too. It’s how Cinco De Mayo, the anniversary of Mexico’s victory over the Second French Empire at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, became the monstrosity that is Cinco de Drinko, a day to wear sombreros and drink tequila at work according to MSNBC. Remember how the judge just assumed Juneteenth had something to do with Father’s Day? Some logic along those lines probably explains how the build the wall guy got photographed posted up with a taco bowl and saw no contradiction.
Juneteenth loses its meaning if it becomes another marketing ploy. It did lead to some funny memeification, though.
Maybe people will understand my concern when Juneteenth becomes 60% off day at Banana Republic. Yes, Banana Republic because people will probably wear Black face and make Harambe jokes. It hurts to be this clever.
On the good news, it’ll help me hit my article quota! So when some senior associate at your firm decides that Juneteenth is the best time to show the office his Shaggy impersonation or decides to give everyone Popeye’s gift cards to commemorate the struggles of the enslaved, please email the pictures, videos, and whatever other evidence of casual racism comes of the celebration to [email protected]!
In the meantime, I’ll be brushing up on my Deleuze and my bell hooks.
Maybe Biden should too. Could help him grasp why making Juneteenth a national holiday at a time when its history can’t even be taught in some schools might have been a bit of bad timing.
Chris Williams became a social media manager and assistant editor for Above the Law in June 2021. Prior to joining the staff, he moonlighted as a minor Memelord™ in the Facebook group Law School Memes for Edgy T14s. He endured Missouri long enough to graduate from Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. He is a former boatbuilder who cannot swim, a published author on critical race theory, philosophy, and humor, and has a love for cycling that occasionally annoys his peers. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and by tweet at @WritesForRent.