A Reflection on Juneteenth by Two Black Executives
There is an ongoing struggle to protect the Black American experience and contribution wholly, and fend off the ongoing appropriation by the white/mainstream experience. The increasing awareness and recognition of Juneteenth as an American holiday is no different. As states and organizations increasingly celebrate Juneteenth, two Black women executives with different backgrounds sit down to discuss what Juneteenth means to them.
Sarah: Rockie, I have to admit that Juneteenth is not a celebration I grew up knowing about. I am a second-generation American, and I spent most of my formative and adult years in Europe. As a kid in California and an adult in New York, it didn’t really come up. Juneteenth is not rooted in my family or my experience as a Black person in America.
To be candid, I only learned about Juneteenth from watching Blackish’s Juneteenth episode in 2017, so I discovered it a little late (early for the zeitgeist). This is how my identity as a Black person in America differs from that of an African-American, and I recognize that impact from a personal history and cultural perspective.
Sarah: You identify as a Haitian and African-American woman who grew up in the South with family ties in Texas. What is your relationship to Juneteenth?
Rockie: Although I have African-American family in Texas, I only started hearing about Juneteenth and celebrating it after I moved to Texas as a teenager. I learned about Juneteenth at the same time that I was learning what it meant to exist as a Black woman and forming my own Black identity. Juneteenth was another lens to understand my heritage. It’s not a holiday that’s anchored in my nuclear family’s traditions, but an important connection to my Black community members that I celebrate.
Sarah: Why does Juneteenth matter to you as a holiday?
Rockie: For me, it is important to acknowledge the holiday because the richness of Black history has been so minimized in public education and mainstream culture. Part of the increased awareness of Juneteenth gives the country an opportunity to celebrate the “end” of a barbaric era in our history, to celebrate freedom, and step away from academic depictions of slavery to focus on the lived experiences of enslaved people. African-Americans were held in bondage for an additional 700 some days after the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas. We are turning this pretty bleak part of American history into a day of celebration — that’s a time-honored Black tradition!
Sarah: Is Juneteenth an occasion more Americans should celebrate?
Rockie: For my family growing up, the 4th of July… it’s a day that we take off, we barbecue, we enjoy ourselves, and celebrate with fireworks. But something we cannot forget is that enslaved people in America did not have their Independence Day in 1776. So many had to wait until June 19, 1865! Juneteenth is a true celebration of American independence and emancipation: it is one of the few definitive inflection points in a long history of enslavement, oppression, restriction of movement, and mass incarceration for African-American people.
I don’t mean to take away from the real content of the proclamation, which was far less freeing, “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages…they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
Instead, I mean to note that Juneteenth has all the hallmarks of a classic narrative common to oppressed peoples: a messenger brings sudden, pivotal freedom, and then the migration follows. It is epic and memorable. I think it builds solidarity between the African-American experience and marginalized people around the world, and I think more people can respectfully commemorate the day.
Sarah: To give our audience a little more context, last year, after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there was a national reckoning about systemic racism. In an effort to do better, organizations and states started announcing they would be celebrating Juneteenth. Rockie, what are your thoughts on that shift towards a mainstream celebration of Juneteenth in America?
Rockie: A large part of me feels that Juneteenth is a ‘by us for us’ holiday. The federal recognition of Juneteenth as a holiday removes an ounce of my hesitation. I see that as a step forward in recognizing Black history and culture as not foreign and not a commodity, but as an integral, respected part of American history.
Sarah: I recognize your concern about ensuring that the holiday is not co-opted or whitewashed. Now that it is a federal holiday, I hope organizations, schools, and leaders will be doing their part to learn about Juneteenth and educate others about its historical significance. I think Juneteenth is a great embodiment of the African-American experience: although African-Americans were technically free, they were still enslaved. The educational burden should be shifted away from Black persons. I think there needs to be collective ownership of U.S. history, from the genocide of indigenous peoples to the exploitation of Latinx and Asian-Americans to the enslavement of Black folks. I’m grateful that as a nation, we’re unpacking the deeply problematic holidays we used to celebrate such as Columbus Day and Thanksgiving and are working towards celebrating inclusive holidays like Juneteenth.
Rockie: For all those who do celebrate going forward, it comes with a responsibility. Like all issues today, individuals and organizations will be held accountable for their broader support of the African-American community, a community that’s still systemically oppressed on everything from voting rights to healthcare. Still being asked to remain quietly in their station. Thank you, Sarah. I appreciate your perspective and your solidarity.