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Juneteenth is becoming a national state holiday — and as a Black Texan, I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it.
Last June, Senate Democrats, joined by Republicans such as Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, proposed the federal holiday as one of the responses to nationwide protests spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. House Democrats also won the support of several Republicans for a similar bill offered by Houston area Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. However, a month later, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin blocked the bipartisan effort, arguing a new holiday would “give federal workers a paid day off that the rest of America has to pay for.” He complained about labor costs over a day marking slavery’s end with no sense of irony.
But even if Johnson wanted to play spoiler, he looked to be on the opposing side of a trend. That same summer, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared Juneteenth a holiday for state workers and promised to push for legislation making it a holiday throughout the state beginning in 2021. (And then his frenemy, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, declared it an official holiday in the nation’s largest city in the new year.) Private companies such as Nike, Twitter and Lyft made similar moves to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, informing staff they would recognize it as a permanent paid holiday.
This week and nearly a year after making his objection, Johnson dropped his objections, albeit not in the most reverent way. “While it still seems strange that having taxpayers provide federal employees paid time off is now required to celebrate the end of slavery, it is clear that there is no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter,” he said in a statement. “Therefore, I do not intend to object.”
That led to the Senate unanimously passing the legislation on Tuesday with the House passing the bill the next day. June 19 has now been officially established as Juneteenth National Independence Day.
On the passage of the Juneteenth Act, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “This is an important step for America, as we ensure that one of the most momentous events in our history finally takes its official place of honor in our nation.” But let’s take a closer look at what that history actually tells us.
When Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger read the Emancipation Proclamation to enslaved Black people in Texas, it was more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln had “freed the slaves” in secessionist states. Some of us like to believe the enslaved broke their own shackles, but nonetheless, Black Texans were robbed of their freedom for no other reason than that evil was not only permissible but encouraged. The same can arguably be said of every year thereafter in Texas and beyond.
If you are Black and living in America, your freedom comes with so many asterisks — mass incarceration, gross inequality, rampant voter suppression. The white supremacist hierarchy that allowed Black people to continue as slaves in spite of legal decree has been kept in relatively good condition, as evidenced by the previous White House occupant and his existing supporters.
If you’re a white person about to celebrate your first Juneteenth, I have a few tips.
Ignore the conservative echo chambers decrying “critical race theory.” We can’t celebrate history a federal holiday by pretending racism doesn’t exist. Keep in your mind the Black Texans and Black southerners who have made this day what it is. And as for celebrations, well, I know how Americans love their holidays. Again, I’m from Texas. If Black folks want to party on a day about freedom, by all means. On the other hand, no matter what color you are: don’t send me emails about kitschy merchandise or a “Juneteenth sale”. I’m not being facetious. It has already happened to me this week. The day is about marking the end of slavery in America. It’s important that you treat it with a modicum of respect.
When it really comes down to it, the most important thing to remember is that Juneteenth isn’t enough. It’s time for Texas and America to pay Black people what it owes us. Black people are going to keep fighting for true liberation whether white people support us or not. I’m sure many of us will make the most of the time off next year, but just so we’re clear, full emancipation is going to cost America more than a holiday.