Juneteenth 2023 at the US embassy, London: It takes time to create national ritual

by Rashmee

Posted on June 16, 2023

The mash-up of June and Nineteenth supposedly marks freedom for the last enslaved African Americans 158 years ago
Juneteenth 2023 was only the second time ever that American embassies officially marked the event. All photos: Rashmee Roshan Lall

On June 16, the US embassy in London marked Juneteenth, America’s newest federal holiday, tremulously but with joy.

The event showed that it takes time for national rituals of celebration and commemoration to be created. And it takes momentum to build up the habit of institutional support for new national rituals of commemoration.

For those who aren’t au fait with Juneteenth, a mash-up of June and Nineteenth, it is supposed to commemorate the emancipation of the last enslaved African Americans 158 years ago. I’ll come to the sub-text of that reading (or misreading) of history soon, but suffice it to say that on June 19, 1865, something significant did occur with respect to freeing slaves.

On that day, Major General Gordon Granger issued an order in Galveston, Texas, proclaiming that slaves in Texas were free. It had taken two years to militarily enforce President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which promised freedom to the slaves in all parts of the Confederacy, the southern states that had seceded from the United States. And it would take another 156 years for Juneteenth to be recognised as a federal holiday with President Joe Biden signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in 2021.

But Juneteenth’s metamorphosis into a US federal holiday doesn’t mean everyone necessarily knows what to do with it. Or on it. Fourth of July celebrations at US embassies around the world are a doddle. The script is familiar, with the usual holiday decorations – flags and bunting – lashings of American food and drink and an attempt to showcase the beating heart of America for people who may not really know what makes the country tick.

But Juneteenth…how do you celebrate Juneteenth? What is appropriate to do, say, hang from the rafters and eat and drink on the day? Should this be primarily a celebration of African-American customs and mores? Or is this all about all of America?

This Juneteenth, at least, there seemed to be no consensus and we saw the uncertainty about how to mark that moment in time 158 years ago. We’ll look at that next.

Rashmee has lived and worked in several countries in the past decade, including Afghanistan, India, Haiti, Tunisia, the UAE, US and UK

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