The first Juneteenth Celebration took place on June 19th, 1865, marking the end of the Civil War and slavery across Texas. Often considered the second Independence Day, Juneteenth serves as a way to celebrate freedom and reflect on the work still to be done towards equity and inclusion.
On June 19, 1865, about two months after the end of the Civil War, a Union general arrived in Galveston, Texas to inform enslaved African Americans they were free. More than 150 years later, people across the U.S. continue to celebrate the day. In 2021, Juneteenth was first recognized as a federal holiday.
Last week, RBC held its second annual Juneteenth employee event, featuring a conversation with Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr., James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University. An American intellectual and critic, Dr. Glaude speaks to the complex dynamics of the American experience. His most well-known books, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, and In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America, take a wide look at black communities, the difficulties of race in the United States, and the challenges our democracy face.
He shared his thoughts on the importance and purpose of Juneteenth celebrations and provides perspective on history, allyship, democracy and the complex issues the United States continues to face around race and equality.
Q: Did you know about Juneteenth growing up? Was it celebrated in your family or your community?
Dr. Glaude: I grew up on the coast of Mississippi, which is just a few hours from Houston. We didn’t celebrate Juneteenth in my hometown, but I knew folks upstate who did. Then as I went to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, I met a host of folk who celebrated Juneteenth. I came to learn it was part of this amazing, alternative celebratory calendar where Black life, and all its complexity, where America in all its complexity, and our vexed relationship to this place, was made explicit. It was a moment of reflection on the shortcomings and failures of the country and an affirmation of the possibility and capabilities, the brilliance of Black cultural life. Plus, you got to eat some really great barbecue.
Q: When we think about the celebration, there’s a sense of joy. It’s recognized as a U.S. holiday now. How is joy a form of resistance?
Dr. Glaude: What do you do when the world declares you are less than? When everything about the way in which our society is arranged evidences a certain valuation that certain bodies are valued more than others? What do you do with the history of accumulated disadvantage? When everything Black or Brown isn’t lifted up, but devalued? It becomes a kind of resource. Joy can be found in darkness – because joy, in my view, is the fuel that allows you to get through the dark. To find joy in one’s experience becomes part of the armour, to protect oneself from believing what the world says about you.
Q: I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people don’t really know what Juneteenth is about. How do you think we should approach conversations discussing Juneteenth celebrations?
Dr. Glaude: Oftentimes, these sorts of celebrations are thought of as events within a particular community, that this matters for Black people in the United States, when in fact Juneteenth is a point of entry to understanding the complex history of the United States generally. One of the distinguishing features of the holiday is that it allows us to understand the incomplete nature of freedom in the country. Juneteenth is all about delayed freedom. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in January of 1863 – and people in Texas did not know they were free until two years later.
Juneteenth offers us an occasion for reflection and it’s not just the possession of a particular community, just like MLK Day is not simply a celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s a day in which the country can reflect on how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.
Q: Why do you think it’s important to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday on a national scale here in the U.S.?
Dr. Glaude: I think it’s important for the U.S. to tell the truth about its history. Americans like to tell the story of the country and its ongoing progress towards a more perfect union – and that progress is often framed within the context of a kind of American exceptionalism – that the country is the shining city on the hill. To believe that American democracy is a shining example to the world requires a blindness to the ugliness of our past.
It’s really important for the nation to have these moments where we disrupt the myths and fantasies of American virtue, so that we can look ourselves squarely in the face in order to imagine ourselves otherwise. It’s not just important for Americans – it’s important for any country that’s grappling with its contradictions and its myths.
Q: Can you give us some examples of how our friends and colleagues, even in the workplace, can act as allies as we struggle through issues of inclusion and diversity?
Dr. Glaude: I am always troubled by how we think about allyship. I’d like the language instead be “being in solidarity with each other.” Allyship can easily slip into a charitable orientation – that I’m doing something for you, as opposed to with you. When I’m doing something with you, I’m in solidarity with you.
As folks understand the nature of the workplaces in which they inhabit… be clear about your values and act on them. Know what you don’t know, and what you can know. And then act accordingly.
Q: What are the ways a national holiday like Juneteenth help resonate with colleagues who may be from different countries?
Dr. Glaude: When we talk about Juneteenth as a day to commemorate delayed freedom, it forces us to look onto ourselves and to engage in an assessment of where we are now. In the context of the U.S., we can tell the story of how far we’ve come and how far we need to go. In the context of other countries, it requires a confrontation with the contradictions that make up your way of life. What have we failed to do over the course of our journey through time and space? How might we be better?
What Juneteenth insists upon is how moral arrogance gets us into trouble. Whenever we encounter moments in other countries’ histories that reveal the shortcomings of men and women, it’s not a moment to feel good about ourselves, but a moment to engage in self-reflection.
Q: What can people do to further their journey and educate themselves?
Dr. Glaude: As a professor and academic, I want you to read some books – and there are some wonderful books on Juneteenth, including:
- Juneteenth: The History and Legacy of the Holiday that Commemorates the End of Slavery in the South, by Charles River Editors
- Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain
- On Juneteenth, by Annette Gordon-Reed
For those who really want to do a deep dive, go to the Library of Congress archives online and really look at the voices remembering slavery. To hear them will give you a sense of the power, the grit, the resilience, the cruelty, the barbarity and the miracle.
Juneteenth is an occasion to commemorate freedom, to celebrate culture and to consider on the work required to progress towards equality. It is a moment for joy, resistance and reflection not just in the U.S. but in all countries around the world.
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