A beginner’s guide to celebrating Juneteenth
Jun 17, 2023, 6:00 PM
(Steve Bloom/The Olympian via AP)
For more than one-and-a-half centuries, the Juneteenth holiday has been sacred to many Black communities.
It marks the day in 1865 enslaved people in Galveston, Texas found out they had been freed — after the end of the Civil war, and two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Since it was designated a federal holiday in 2021, Juneteenth has become more universally recognized beyond Black America. Many people get the day off work or school, and there are a plethora of street festivals, fairs, concerts and other events.
People who never gave the holiday on June 19 more than a passing thought may be asking themselves, is there a “right” way to celebrate Juneteenth?
For beginners and those brushing up history, here are some answers:
IS JUNETEENTH A SOLEMN DAY OF REMEMBRANCE OR MORE OF A PARTY?
It just depends on what you want. Juneteenth festivities are rooted in cookouts and barbecues. In the beginnings of the holiday celebrated as Black Americans’ true Independence Day, the outdoors allowed for large, raucous reunions among formerly enslaved family, many of whom had been separated. The gatherings were especially revolutionary because they were free of restrictive measures, known as “Black Codes,” enforced in Confederate states, controlling whether liberated slaves could vote, buy property, gather for worship and other aspects of daily life.
Alan Freeman, 60, grew up celebrating Juneteenth every year in Houston, 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Galveston. A comedian who is producing Galveston’s first ever Juneteenth Comedy Festival on Saturday, he has vivid memories of smoke permeating his entire neighborhood because so many people were using their barbecue pits for celebratory cookouts. You could go to anyone’s house and be welcomed to join in the feast, which could include grilled chicken and beef and other regional cuisines — jerk meats, fried fish, Jamaican plantains.
“It’s where I began to really see Black unity because I realized that that was the one day that African Americans considered ours,” Freeman said. “The one holiday that was ours. We didn’t have to share with anybody. And it was about freedom because what we understood is that we were emancipated from slavery. But, there was so many beautiful activities.”
Others may choose to treat Juneteenth as a day of rest and remembrance. That can mean doing community service, attending an education panel or taking time off.
The important thing is to make people feel they have options on how to observe the occasion, said Dr. David Anderson, a Black pastor and CEO of Gracism Global, a consulting firm helping leaders navigate conversations bridging divides across race and culture.
“Just like the Martin Luther King holiday, we say it’s a day of service and a lot of people will do things. There are a lot of other people who are just ‘I appreciate Dr. King, I’ll watch what’s on the television, and I’m gonna rest,’” Anderson said. “I don’t want to make people feel guilty about that. What I want to do is give everyday people a choice.”
WHAT IF YOU’VE NEVER CELEBRATED JUNETEENTH?
Anderson, 57, of Columbia, Maryland, never did anything on Juneteenth in his youth. He didn’t learn about it until his 30s.
“I think many folks haven’t known about it — who are even my color as an African American male. Even if you heard about it and knew about it, you didn’t celebrate it,” Anderson said. “It was like just a part of history. It wasn’t a celebration of history.”
For many African Americans, the farther away from Texas that they grew up increased the likelihood they didn’t have big Juneteenth celebrations regularly. In the South, the day can vary based on when word of Emancipation reached each state.
Anderson has no special event planned other than giving his employees Friday and Monday off. If anything, Anderson is thinking about the fact it’s Father’s Day this weekend.
“If I can unite Father’s Day and Juneteenth to be with my family and honor them, that would be wonderful,” he said.
WHAT KIND OF PUBLIC JUNETEENTH EVENTS ARE GOING ON AROUND THE COUNTRY?
Search online and you will find a smorgasbord of gatherings in major cities and suburbs all varying in scope and tone. Some are more carnival-esque festivals with food trucks, arts and crafts and parades. Within those festivals, you’ll likely find access to professionals in health care, finance and community resources. There also are concerts and fashion shows to highlight Black excellence and creativity. For those who want to look back, plenty of organizations and universities host panels to remind people of Juneteenth’s history.
ARE THERE SPECIAL FOODS SERVED ON JUNETEENTH?
Aside from barbecue, the color red has been a through line for Juneteenth food for generations. Red symbolizes the bloodshed and sacrifice of enslaved ancestors. A Juneteenth menu might incorporate items like barbecued ribs or other red meat, watermelon and red velvet cake. Drinks like fruit punch and red Kool-Aid may make an appearance at the table.
DOES HOW YOU CELEBRATE JUNETEENTH MATTER IF YOU AREN’T BLACK?
Dr. Karida Brown, a sociology professor at Emory University whose research focuses on race, said there’s no reason to feel awkward about wanting to recognize Juneteenth because you have no personal ties or you’re not Black. In fact, embrace it.
“I would reframe that and challenge my non-Black folks who want to lean into Juneteenth and celebrate,” Brown said. “It absolutely is your history. It absolutely is a part of your experience. … Isn’t this all of our history? The good, the bad, the ugly, the story of emancipation and freedom for for your Black brothers and sisters under the Constitution of the law.”
If you want to bring some authenticity to your recognition of Juneteenth, educate yourself. Attending a street festival or patronizing a Black-owned business is a good start but it also would be good to “make your mind better,” Anderson said.
“That goes longer than a celebration,” Anderson said. “I think Black people need to do it too because it’s new for us as well, in America. But for non-Black people, if they could read on this topic and read on Black history beyond Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, that would show me that you’re really serious about growing in this area.”
If you’re struggling with how to “ethically” mark the day, Brown also suggested expanding your knowledge of why the holiday matters so much. That can be through reading, attending an event or going to an African American history museum if there’s one nearby.
“Have that full human experience of seeing yourself in and through the eyes of others, even if that’s not your own lived experience,” she said. “That is a radical human act that is awesome and should be encouraged and celebrated.”
WHAT ARE OTHER NAMES USED TO REFER TO JUNETEENTH?
Over the decades, Juneteenth has also been called Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, Black Fourth of July and second Independence Day among others.
“Because 1776, Fourth of July, where we’re celebrating freedom and liberty and all of that, that did not include my descendants,” Brown said. “Black people in America were still enslaved. So that that holiday always comes with a bittersweet tinge to it.”
IS THERE A PROPER JUNETEENTH GREETING?
It’s typical to wish people a “Happy Juneteenth” or “Happy Teenth,” said Freeman, the comedian.
“You know how at Christmas people will say ‘Merry Christmas’ to each other and not even know each other? You can get a ‘Merry Christmas’ from everybody. This is the same way,” Freeman said.
No matter what race you are, you will “absolutely” elicit a smile if you utter either greeting, he said.
“I believe that a non-Black person who celebrates Juneteenth … it’s their one time to have a voice, to participate.”