Current Events History Justice Culture

Why Black and White People Should Commemorate Juneteenth Differently

Jemar Tisby

In junior high and high school whenever the teacher would assign a group project, typically only a couple of people in the group really did the work. The rest of the group found ways to extricate themselves from actually contributing to the project and simply celebrated when a good grade came back.

Now that Juneteenth is a federal holiday and has gone mainstream, white people might be like those students in the group project who added nothing to the work–and may have even opposed it–but then celebrate a good result as if they had something to do with it. 

For several months in 2020 waves of antiracist protests rose across the country and the world. Spurred to action by the unjust killings of Black people such as Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, people vowed to change the racist status quo. 

As part of the commitment to dismantle racism, many individuals, organizations, and governments committed to increasing racial awareness by celebrating Juneteenth. 

Juneteenth, a portmanteau consisting of the words “June” and “nineteenth,” stands as the oldest celebration of Black emancipation in the United States. To this day, the occasion marks the progress of the United States from legally approving race-based chattel slavery to legally abolishing it after centuries of resistance, the initiation of the nation’s bloodiest war, and a constitutional amendment. 

Historically speaking, few events compare to the significance of the abolition of slavery in the United States. It forever changed the political and social landscape of the country. The new attention Juneteenth is receiving outside of Black communities is long overdue and should be welcomed.

But even though Juneteenth is an occasion that everyone should recognize, not everyone should acknowledge it in the same way. 

While Juneteenth is truly American history that includes and applies to everyone, it has its roots in the bloody battle between white supremacy and the Black freedom struggle. In this conflict, the two sides are not morally equivalent. You can’t “both sides” race-based chattel slavery. It was a heinous institution that Black people and their co-conspirators knew was wrong at the time and its evil has only become more apparent in the ensuing century and a half since abolition. 

Many societies throughout time have practiced some form of slavery. In the United States, however, slavery “developed as a permanent, hereditary status centrally tied to race.”  

As slavery became more institutionalized, wealthy white men created more rules to regulate its practice. Breaking from the tradition of a child following the father’s status, slavery in the United States dictated that a child was born enslaved or free based solely on the mother’s status. 

Slavery in the United States meant slavery for life with no hope of emancipation. Enslaved Black people were deprived of legal rights, required permission to leave their master’s property, were forbidden to legally marry, and could not carry guns. Slavery in this country defined enslaved Africans not as human beings but as chattel—private property on the same level as livestock.

Although some degrees of freedom were possible, in essence, in the United States, blackness was the sole qualification to be enslaved. 

Black people did not invent white supremacy or the system of race-based chattel slavery. They did not write the laws that considered enslaved people three-fifths of a person for the purposes of representation in Congress. They did not form entire Christian denominations–such as the Southern Baptist Convention–dedicated to the perpetuation of slavery.  Black people did not break away from the Union to form a rebellious state founded, as Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens said, “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” White people did that.

Even the support of white abolitionists was uneven and incomplete. Just because someone did not want the institution of race-based chattel slavery to continue did not mean they were committed to the concept of Black equality. 

Even Abraham Lincoln, often dubbed the “Great Emancipator” for his role in leading the Union during the Civil War and for signing the Emancipation Proclamation, made it clear that white people who opposed slavery could also be racist.

At the outset of his presidency in 1860, Abraham Lincoln objected to the expansion of slavery, but he was not initially interested in abolishing it, nor did he advocate for civil or social equality for black people. During a series of political debates against Stephen Douglas in Illinois in 1858, Lincoln carefully explained, “I am not nor have I ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” 

Given the racialized history of slavery in the United States, white and Black people should both commemorate Juneteenth, but they should do it in different ways and with a different focus. 

For Black people, Juneteenth should be a day of celebration. It represents the clear triumph of Black liberation over racial subjugation. Of course, there is still more work to do, but Juneteenth reminds us that antiracist change is possible. Black people cannot consistently pursue justice without moments of joy and Juneteenth is a rare occasion for Black people to be joyful about racial justice. 

Cookouts, music, (fully-vaccinated) gatherings, and simply resting for a day are appropriate ways for Black Americans to celebrate Juneteenth. 

Even though all Americans can celebrate Black emancipation from slavery, for white people, Juneteenth must also serve as a day of somber remembrance and lamentation. 

As the commemoration of Juneteenth becomes more common, white people should be careful not to erase the suffering and brutality of slavery in favor of a celebratory message of perpetual progress. They should not celebrate as if they had nothing to do with the conditions that made Black emancipation necessary in the first place. 

The United States did not have to enshrine race-based chattel slavery into its laws, policies, religion, and identity. If more white people had confronted the dehumanizing forces of greed, hate, and authoritarianism, then the “peculiar institution” might have not have been institutionalized at all. 

Maybe “commemoration” is a better word than “celebration” for white people to use when it comes to Juneteenth. They should certainly commemorate it, pause to acknowledge the historical importance of the day, but a pure celebration seems presumptuous. 

White people may consider financially supporting Black churches or organizations as they celebrate Juneteenth. They can use the holiday as an opportunity to educate other white people about slavery and its legacies. It should be a day for white people to commit to fighting contemporary ideologies that prop up white supremacy such as white supremacist domestic extremism and Christian Nationalism. It can be an opportunity for white Christian churches to remember the people–past and present–who have suffered for the sake of true liberation. 

White people can also use it as a day to advocate for the political and systemic changes that lead to racial equity. The protests of 2020 were ignited by instances of white racial violence against Black people, especially antiblack police brutality. In addition, voting rights, one of the primary catalysts for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, are once again under acute attack. White people can use Juneteenth as a day of action to help change racist policies and expand the fight against racism from the interpersonal to the institutional. 

But keeping Juneteenth in proper perspective is going to be very difficult for many white people to do. 

Juneteenth is a complicated event to remember. It requires white people to face the fact that white supremacy and racism were codified in an economically exploitative system of labor called race-based chattel slavery. 

Juneteenth is the annual argument against American exceptionalism. This great experiment in democracy and equality was flawed from the start. Those noble words of the Declaration of Independence–“all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”–were written by a slaveholder and they excluded far more people than they included.

Today the challenge of rightly remembering the past is once again being assailed by white reactionaries. They have rebelled against initiatives like the 1619 Project which suggests that the true founding of the United States was not in 1776 with a declaration of independence but in 1619 with the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia. People committed to fear-mongering have made Critical Race Theory another battlefront in the Culture Wars and are passing laws to curtail training and education-related racism. 

Some white people may even respond to the heightened awareness of Juneteenth and the history it represents by pushing even harder to celebrate the Confederacy, the antebellum South, and the “Lost Cause” of the Civil War. It should not be surprising to see more Confederate flags, rallies at Confederate monuments, and attempts to celebrate Confederate holidays. Some people still want to wear the rebel gray uniforms and fight for a day when Black people “knew their place.” 

Black people have been fighting racism, literally since the moment people of African descent were forcibly brought to North America centuries ago. Even in 2021, fighting racism is a daily battle–from the workplace, to so-called “routine” traffic stops, to the wealth gap, racism is exhausting in its ubiquity. So for Black people, Juneteenth is a much-needed day of rest and celebration. 

But for those who historically benefited from slavery and the various forms of oppression that evolved after it, Juneteenth should mean something different. 

For white people, humility, contrition, and antiracist action should characterize the commemoration of Juneteenth.