Opal Lee, the woman who has been advocating for years for a federal holiday commemorating Juneteenth, was asked why this holiday is so important given that we already have the fourth of July: “People need to know Juneteenth is about freedom,” she replied.
Freedom? Isn’t that what July 4th is already about? For that matter, isn’t that what the United States of America is all about? Why do we continue to ‘correct’ the very symbols of the ideals we are correcting for? Putting our hand over our heart for the national anthem is now challenged with the kneel; statues of patriots who fought for this country must be replaced with statues of folks we’ve never heard of before; and now, a new holiday for freedom?
There’s only one explanation for this: for some Americans, freedom has not yet arrived. Once we start celebrating freedom we run the risk of presuming that it is complete. When freedom becomes an emblem for what was achieved in the past it implies the attainment of a goal, the consummation of what was striven for, and the termination of a struggle. And to those who still feel in bondage, it is an insult.
Hence, a new holiday. If the first holiday for freedom didn’t ‘take,’ maybe the next one will, so the logic goes. Maybe this time they’ll ‘get it,’ and take action accordingly.
As a White American, I grew up believing that the struggles of African Americans were the residual effects of history, that the only thing holding them back was bad decisions in the deep dark past that were now being gradually rectified. It came as a surprise to find out that decisions made in my own lifetime have kept my black brothers and sisters enslaved just as much as any pre-Civil War policy. For example, the War on Drugs of the ‘80s and ‘90s stripped millions of young black men of their rights and liberties by putting them in jail even though their white counterparts were engaged with similar dangerous drugs. Likewise, the suburban sprawl that I grew up in barred black families from purchasing homes outside of the city and relegated them to ‘projects’ inside the city, holding them back from so much of the American dream. And Brown v. Board of Education, in the wake of which I was born, effectively removed a majority of black educators from the classroom subjecting promising black students to the prejudices of white teachers. In each case, our society – my society – pro-actively took steps to prevent freedom, not promote it. The African American struggle is not, in fact, a vestige of the past; it is perpetuated by current realities.
And if twenty years from now there are still large gaps in our freedom, will we need to establish yet another federal holiday? Who knows? Until then, all we can do is route out the lack of freedom we see in front of us and address it courageously and pro-actively. Working for freedom goes on. It will never be ‘completed.’ That’s why Juneteenth is a federal holiday.