Let’s Make Juneteenth a National Holiday

Here we are, on the cusp of celebrating Independence Day, which leads to my annual bout of old white man navel gazing about which holidays in the United States are the best. You see, IMHO many of our most traditional and sacred holidays have serious and divisive issues, whether because of complicated legacies, suboptimal family dynamics, or the exclusion of large swaths of our fellow citizens.

To start, here is my totally objective rundown on some of our country’s most popular holidays:

  • New Year’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day have come within the exclusive purview of drunks.
  • Let’s agree that people hate Thanksgiving because of their relatives and/or because the day celebrates the legacy of one of our country’s founding sins. The Addams family celebrated this holiday most appropriately.
  • Valentine’s Day leaves people more depressed than hopeful.
  • Super Bowl Sunday was tarnished when Colin Kaepernick was blackballed from the NFL, revealing that football’s owners are more interested in placating the racists among their fan base than actual competition between teams. Also, CTE’s.
  • Too many people conflate Veterans Day and Memorial Day (resulting in all the “Happy Memorial Day!” tweets on an otherwise somber days).
  • The creations of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny cannot adequately camouflage the fact that Christmas and Easter are exclusively Christian religious holidays.
  • Where I live, Labor Day is observed with gusto, but have you seen the numbers for labor unions across America? They are getting ready to replace this day with Hedge Fund Day. I was kidding until I found out HFD is a thing.
  • Columbus Day? Who discovered America? Maybe the people who were here long before Columbus, despite what I was taught in school. This holiday has been out of favor for years + have you seen how many people are ready to support the initiative to rename Columbus, Ohio, as Flavortown, Ohio, in honor of native son Guy Fieri?
  • Halloween? The problem with Halloween is that too many municipalities do not allow Trick or Treat on October 31. Also, have you heard that Halloween may be a Satanist cult celebration?

This leaves Independence Day, alternately known as July 4th or the Fourth of July, marking the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the United States of America. For most of my adult life, I held Independence Day as the one uncomplicated celebration that all Americans could embrace. You could eat all the food! Parades! Fireworks! After all, my schools taught me that it’s America’s birthday! Which red-blooded American patriot could not want to celebrate this birthday? It’s the one day of the year where everyone gets to chant “USA! USA!” without a trace of irony or the need of alcohol.

And then, a few years ago, I read Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” which was delivered to a (presumably) white audience in Rochester NY in 1852. Douglass, who had freed himself from enslavement in Maryland, viewed the nation’s independence through the prism of the 4 million people enslaved in this country and concluded:

I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.

To paraphrase Douglass, I believe he was saying, “What do you mean ‘we’ white man?” Apparently, he had issues with celebrating the founding of our country, such as the aforementioned Declaration of Independence, which was signed mostly by slave owners, and Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution, which declared that any person who was not free would be counted as three-fifths of a free individual for the purposes of determining congressional representation.

Frankly, my education surrounding the founding of the country was like one big version of the musical “1776,” which featured Thomas Jefferson as a complicated, brooding, romantic figure who certainly would not have raped his slave Sally Hemings and father several children with her. And then I grew up and found out that he did commit this abomination.

So, what’s an old white man to do with a national holiday that, at best, fills his soul with ambivalence? Well, I keep going back to the preamble to our Constitution, which states, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” Let’s remember that the word “we” in this case referred to white male property owners of a certain age. Not women. Not black people. Not the original settlers of this continent. Not laborers and others who rented. Not most people.

And then there’s that phrase “more perfect.” Precise language is important to me, so if you have a thing, it’s either “perfect” or “imperfect.” There are no gradations of perfect. Once you reach perfect, you are at the top of Mount Everest. You cannot climb higher. So, to use the term “more perfect” indicates to me that the Founding Fathers felt like they were getting there, but not there yet. Which explains the Bill of Rights and all those pesky amendments, including amendments addressing some of the original sins in the Constitution.

But laws and constitutional amendments reflect our aspirations, not our realities. So, in 1776 we had a new country and, in 1789, a document governing our “more perfect union” that considered millions of men, women, and children as property of other people based solely on the color of their skin. While our union was founded on high-minded aspirations, it was built on a moral trash heap.

Yet those aspirations of July 4, 1776, are so attractive, the dreams they create so powerful, that people from all over the world are lured to our shores with a promise. Those aspirations are so seductive that even sons and grandsons and great-grandsons of slaves went off to Europe twice in World War I and World War II to defend an ideal denied them at home. In some cases, they returned to the country they had defended and were lynched.

Independence Day is a deeply flawed celebration. However, there is another day celebrated in most states that represents the better angels of our founding. 

Thanks in no small part to President Voldemort, recently a national discussion focused on this lesser known holiday that is celebrated in communities across the country, Juneteenth. This holiday commemorates June 19, 1865, when the Union Army (otherwise known as the U.S. Army) entered Texas with the news that enslaved people were emancipated. This act took place more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

Emancipation raised the hopes of newly freed people during Reconstruction, but those hopes were crushed by the Jim Crow era, another deadly stain on our nation’s soul. While enslaved persons were freed, over the years new laws, court interpretations like Plessy v. Ferguson, widespread racial prejudices, duly constituted law enforcement, corrupt politicians and businesses, and citizens brigades like the Ku Klux Klan guaranteed that newly freed persons would continue to suffer (sometimes literally) under the lash of those who formerly claimed them as property.

Today, in the Black Lives Matter era, we are all reminded that the legacy of slavery continues more than 150 years later. The observation of the southern novelist William Faulkner rings in my ears: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” IMHO, the promise of America is filled with so many contradictions that they threaten to tear us apart.

So, I would be okay with switching our national holiday of independence to Juneteenth. It’s not a perfect holiday (because, at this point, do you really want to digress into the discussion of how our government continues to mistreat descendants of the original settlers or how President Voldemort foments violence against Asians)? However, Juneteenth is more perfect than Independence Day. Juneteenth is recognized in almost all states and is a paid holiday in four states.

So, white people, who control the nation’s calendar, let’s take off the rose-colored interpretation of our nation’s founding and celebrate our nation, acknowledge our faults and the damage our privilege has created, and pledge to each other to continue working towards a perfect union. I believe that everyone celebrating Juneteenth can appreciate how far we have come in 400 years, as well as how much work we have to do to ensure that all members of our society can enjoy the privileges into which I was born 62 years ago.

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