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Commentary: Juneteenth — It's Complicated

Friday, June 19 is Juneteenth.  It’s a day of significance but it’s not a national holiday. In today’s climate of social unrest and calls for change in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, the day has taken on even more significance.  For some it is the real Independence Day. For others, the observance of the end of slavery in Texas is just so much lip service.  Guest commentator Arrie Porter has these thoughts about what Juneteenth has come to mean to her in 2020. 

My grandfather would not celebrate July 4. The day that represented independence for America did not apply to him.

“That is not when our people were freed,” he’d say.  

I didn’t understand as a child but knew his freedom was tied to a day when African Americans were free to take hold of the promises afforded every citizen by the Constitution: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves, effective January 1, 1863. However, not until June 19, 1865, two and a half years later, did Major General Gordon Granger, leader of the Union Army, read General Orders #3, apprising Texans gathered in Galveston that slaves had their freedom.

The annual Juneteenth celebrations have been hampered this year due to COVID-19, but the date will be memorialized around the globe. The current temperature of racial matters is cause to consider the past meaning of Juneteenth and implications for the holiday today.

When I think about the sacrifices made by my ancestors, it is clear their hopes and dreams allowed them to keep moving, to keep believing. Having a date that validated those hopes and dreams is still important. My family wasn’t alone in its desire that we not only live but thrive. Juneteenth is evidence of the perseverance of a people and the idea that our nation can operate equitably.

Juneteenth should be a national holiday because doing so will free us collectively to be our higher selves. Coming together on that day will be evidence of a world where everyone belongs, where we understand that we are all connected. What impacts one directly, ultimately impacts the other. We are imperfect people, in an imperfect world, but recent protests signal that we are ready to chart a different course.

It’s complicated. My middle school Social Studies teacher referred to Juneteenth as “Negro Ignorance Day.” He was a Black man, tired of being insulted, made to feel less than. My grandfather would say it is not only important that we know we are free, but that we be allowed to live free. Unlike post emancipation reconstruction, our present time is an opportunity to reimagine a world where our children and grandchildren can live their best lives. That is when America will be great.

Guest commentator Arrie Porter is a thesis candidate in the MFA program in Literature, Creative Writing and Social Justice at Our Lady of the Lake University.