Talking About Juneteenth
Updated: Jun 22, 2021
I was surprised and pleased last week when President Biden and Congress enacted legislation naming Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when emancipation was enforced in Texas to free the last slaves, a national holiday. Surprised because America usually prefers to downplay our history of slavery and racial injustice. Pleased because this recognition of Juneteenth is a statement of African American inclusion in the "American story", America's narrative of who we are. This Juneteenth national holiday equals the significance of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), located near the White House and Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
In September 2016 I attended the NMAAHC opening dedication ceremony, and wrote about it in my memoir "From Willard Straight to Wall Street" (Cornell University Press, 2019). "It is an extraordinary structure whose shape echoes a Yoruban crown, and the color varies in response to each day's unique light and color. The architecture...brings a new dimension to the National Mall by presenting a unique and powerful visual statement: this building is about a people whose story belongs to the American national story, and yet it's also about a people whose story is decidedly different... During much of the dedication ceremony I was overcome with profound gratitude. Tears of joy ran down my face -- joy at being alive and present in person to participate in this extraordinary historic event. Congressman John Lewis spoke of how the museum means that "as long as there is America, the African American story will be told on the National Mall, and tell American history through an African American lens...and describe the African American tributary which flows into the great river which is America." President Barack Obama said, "This museum represents how we remake ourselves in accord with our highest ideals...and this commitment to truth is where real patriotism lies." President George W. Bush said "NMAAHC is important for three reasons: (1) It speaks to America's commitment to truth; (2) It speaks to America's capacity for
change; and (3) It showcases African American talent and greatness."
The significance of Juneteenth as a national holiday and NMAAHC on the National Mall, in combination with creation of the Martin Luther King, Jr national holiday in 1983, is that they proclaim a profound American shift towards inclusion rather than Eurocentric narrative and self-image. It means America is beginning to embrace its multicultural and global heritage. A great irony is that some conservatives oppose the Juneteenth holiday and NMAAHC and other racial justice initiatives, arguing that they undermine the "great American Founding Fathers liberty and justice for all" narrative. But the truth is that Juneteenth and NMAAHC and racial justice bring America closer to actualizing the values and ideals which we profess to be the basis for America's unique historical legacy and greatness.
What do you think about Juneteenth?