Juneteenth article image

What is Juneteenth to an American?

How the recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday might reconcile racial division in American heritage and culture

The recent acceptance of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, after it was signed into law by President Joe Biden on 17th June, has shown how America’s historical narratives continue to be divided along racial lines. However, the political recognition of Black Independence Day might finally offer a resolution of the nation’s long held binary between black and white history. 

Public holidays are rooted in collective participation and value. As a symbol of memory and heritage, they distil and spread cultural ideals across a national community. However, holidays can create conflict as well as unity. As their importance depends on collective value, public holidays are subject to change and tension, as historical narratives are challenged and renegotiated into present cultural and political consensus. 

Public holidays have long been sites of racial conflict in the US. In the early 19th century, black abolitionists used US Independence Day to highlight the disparity between black and white liberty in the American historical narrative. Through speeches, petitions and protests, black abolitionists used the symbol of Independence to point out the hypocrisy of the American foundation myth, rooting the country’s formation in slavery rather than freedom.  A 1773 petition signed by four slaves in Massachusetts highlighted this contradiction, stating that ‘we expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them’. By showing that American Independence prioritised white domination at the expense of black rights, black abolitionists exposed white and black liberty as relational concepts. The denial of black rights wasn’t just a byproduct of white supremacy; it defined it.  

These attitudes encouraged a kind of historical separatism. African Americans created their own narrative of liberty, distanced from the white-centred patriotism that legitimised their political subordination. In 1808, Absalom Jones and other prominent black ministers in Philadelphia rejected white independence narratives by offering thanksgiving sermons on New Year’s Day – a date that celebrated the abolition of the slave trade as well as Haitian Independence (1804). The formation of an alternative history saw African Americans place themselves outside of white cultural hegemony, creating a narrative based around events directly relating to black empowerment. This explains the particular emphasis on Haiti, as the first state to grant black people full citizenship rights. 

The creation of alternative and empowering black narratives was an inherently political act.; White cultural domination underpinned a political system rooted in slave ownership. The constitution itself quite literally enshrined slaves as lesser beings, defining their value as that of ‘three-fifths’ of a person in Article 1, Section II. The attitudes of American Fathers were reflected in this. James Madison himself asserted (in Federalist Paper no. 54) that slaves were a ‘mixed character of persons and of property’. Culturally and politically dehumanising African Americans allowed white supremacy to be justified and maintained. This made the denial of mainstream American narratives all the more potent: by rejecting Independence Day, symbolising the creation of a political system rooted in slavery and black oppression, African Americans worked to destabilise their subjugated cultural and political role. On July 4th 1804, black inhabitants in Philadelphia rejected the tradition of people gathering outside Independence Hall. Instead, they gathered outside Southwark, an area which had a majority black population, to celebrate Haiti’s victory that year over French forces sent to re-enslave them. During this meeting, the black Philadelphians elected new authorities and organised military units before conducting an armed march through the city. Here, the rejection of the cultural symbol of the 4th of July facilitated a wider political protest against recent legislative discrimination, which sought to impose additional taxes on black homeowners and force black people to carry documentation proving their free status. 

Frederick Douglass recognised the distance between black and white cultural narratives of liberty and independence. In his speech ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’ on 5th July 1852, Douglass made clear that Independence Day’s celebration of white liberty made it incompatible with black culture:

“This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.

To [the American slave], your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

With such a strongly politicised history, what role can public holidays surrounding independence play in the US today? Any national tradition that appeals to shared heritage from the colonial era necessarily confronts slavery and its continued legacy. The problematic aspects of our own national heritage were epitomised in last year’s conflict regarding ‘Rule, Britannia!’, when Boris Johnson labelled the BBC Proms’ hesitancy to perform its lyrics as an incident of unnecessary ‘“self-recrimination and wetness’”. Clearly, challenging aspects of traditional patriotic narrative can create tension and instability.

A group photograph of thirty-one people at a Juneteenth Celebration in Emancipation Park in Houston’s Fourth Ward, 1880.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the recent opposition to the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. The 14 Republican politicians who opposed the bill in the House of Representatives on the 14th June argued that the holiday would create conflict and division. Matt Rosendale of Montana described the bill as an attempt to ‘enshrine the racial history of this country as the prime aspect of our national story’. Tom Tiffany thought the bill would ‘fuel separatism’. What’s interesting about the political opposition to Juneteenth is its treatment of the racial binary in American heritage. Those opposing the bill see the black narrative of liberty as oppositional, threatening American identity. Patriotism is considered implicitly as white. Representatives Biggs and Clyde objected to the use of Independence Day in the title of the holiday, reinforcing the image of the 4th of July as a symbol of primarily white liberty. In their opposition to Juneteenth, they underpin an assumption that white American heritage is the default. By confining American identity to a narrowly white scope, the opposition seeks to alienate black heritage by positioning it as culturally separate: at best, black narratives of liberty are portrayed as an addition; at worst, a kind of antithesis to patriotic identity. Whilst conservative opposition defends traditional white history in the name of preventing racial conflict, in reality they run a much greater risk of fuelling tension by failing to recognise minority voices. Juneteenth will not encourage racial conflict, but will contribute to healing it.

Juneteenth commemorates 19th June 1865, when the slaves of Galveston, Texas, were informed of their freedom following the end of the civil war. It exists as a symbol of black culture and empowerment, hailing important figures within this narrative. Celebrations include eating symbolic food like the ‘Marcus Garvey salad’ and participating in voter registration events. The first National Miss Juneteenth Pageant was held in 2020, encouraging younger generations to participate in the celebration of black liberty. 

The political potential of Juneteenth is clear. Biden described signing the National Independence Day Act as ‘“one of the greatest honours I will have had as President’”. A Gallup Panel Survey conducted in May this year showed that groups who are more familiar with Juneteenth are more likely to support its recognition as a federal holiday. This evidence suggests that, broadly speaking, greater knowledge of black heritage encourages greater political support. Obviously, this has to take into account the strongly partisan nature of this debate – Democrats typically know a lot more about Juneteenth than Republicans, of which around 45% claim to know nothing about the holiday. But it does raise some interesting questions around the politicisation of knowledge and heritage in American culture. The same Gallup Survey shows that 49% of participants believe Juneteenth should be taught in school curriculums. This contrasts with Trump’s establishment of his 1776 Commission in September last year, designed to instil a white-centred ‘patriotic education’ and reject the teaching of black narratives as part of critical race theory. The 1776 report directly references the work of Douglass and his speech (see above), twisting it into a celebration of patriotic documents including the Declaration and Constitution rather than a demonstration of their hypocrisy. Whilst reactionary forces see the inclusion of black narratives in education as a divisive force, the recent efforts of the Biden administration show a more positive development, where the study of black heritage can integrate rather than separate racial identities using critical race theory. 

As Opal Lee has said, Juneteenth is ‘not a Texas thing or a black thing. It’s an American thing.’ The integration of black and white historical narratives will not weaken American identity, but will broaden and strengthen it. The binary of white and black liberty has been perpetuated in politics and culture for far too long. To fix this, we need to directly confront the past, and challenge the cultural acceptance of white history as the national default. 


Sources:

Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Michigan Citizen (Highland Park, Mich.), 2009.

Alyssa Lukpat, ‘These 14 House Republicans Voted Against a Juneteenth Federal Holiday’, The New York Times (17th June 2021) [accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/17/us/republicans-against-juneteenth.html on 06/07/2021

Justin McCarthy, ‘Most Americans Know About the Juneteenth Holiday’, Gallup News (15th June 2021) [accessed at https://news.gallup.com/poll/351041/americans-know-juneteenth-holiday.aspx on 06/07/2021]

Gary B Nash, ‘Reverberations of Haiti in the American North: Black Saint Dominguans in Philadelphia.’ Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, vol. 65, 1998, pp. 44–73. 

Manisha Sinha, ‘To “cast Just Obliquy” on Oppressors: Black Radicalism in the Age of Revolution.(Forum).’ The William and Mary Quarterly 64.1, 2007, pp.149-160

Jim Waterson, ‘Proms row: Johnson calls for end to ‘cringing embarrassment’ over UK history’, The Guardian (25th August 2020) [accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/aug/25/boris-johnson-scolds-bbc-over-suggestion-proms-would-drop-rule-britannia on 06/07/2021]

‘What is Juneteenth, America’s newest national holiday?’ The Economist (18th June 2021) [accessed at https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2021/06/18/what-is-juneteenth-americas-newest-national-holiday on 06/07/2021]

‘Juneteenth: What is the newest US holiday and how is it celebrated?’, BBC News (18th June 2021) [accessed at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-57515192 on 06/07/21]