The muddled nature of the evolving ritual of Juneteenth

Confusion about how to mark the day speaks to the holiday’s youthfulness
Photo by Tasha Jolley on Unsplash

Juneteenth 2023 is only the second time that the US has marked June 19 as a US federal holiday and the confusion about how to mark the day speaks to the holiday’s youthfulness.

As I’ve written before (click here and here), there appears to be little consensus as yet on how to mark Juneteenth for it takes time to build up national rituals of observance.

The decision to sign Juneteenth into law as a national holiday only happened in 2021 but its youth does not mean Juneteenth lacks history. From June 19, 1866, a year after they received news from a United States senior army officer that they were free, former slaves in Galveston, Texas have been observing the day of their deliverance with great joy (as well as pain). By some accounts, there were church picnics and speeches.

For years before Juneteenth became a national holiday, African Americans marked the day with cookouts and red drinks, which signified their ancestors’ bloodshed and endurance. CNN recently quoted Kleaver Cruz, author of the forthcoming book The Black Joy Project, as follows: “We know the horrors that we went through. It’s always concurrent: the joy and the pain. We use one to get through the other”.

Opal Lee, the 96-year-old former Texas teacher and activist who campaigned for Juneteenth to be a federal holiday, recalls celebrating it as a child with music, food and games.

But what food? What music? What games? What are the specificities that should mark out Juneteenth? Should it be about Black Americans or about America and Americans as a whole? It says something that The New York Times’ (NYT) cooking section lists the following among its recipes appropriate for Juneteenth: Charleston Red Rice and Stone-Ground Grits. These are but two of the many, overwhelming southern recipes, but they indicate a possibly misguided attempt to cast Juneteenth as a day for memorialising that’s limited to the African-American community.

Some would say that’s a mistake and a US federal holiday should be for all Americans. But historian Tiya Miles’s guest essay for the NYT (paywall) wonders if nationalising the holiday detracts from its earlier, somewhat scattered and spontaneous magic. “When we allow corporations and distant event planners to hijack Juneteenth, we lose the texture of these various places and their particular commemorations,” she says.

The debate is not over by any means.

Also read:

Juneteenth wasn’t the end of slavery in the United States

America’s London embassy marked Juneteenth with a painting and passionate D-I-Y

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