Juneteenth as a Federal Holiday is an Act of Fraud by a Congress that Continues to Sabotage Black Freedom
Earlier this week the Congress passed legislation making Juneteenth a federal holiday, and, somehow we are supposed to see this as an act of progress and cause for celebration. Yet, when placed within the context of our current condition as a people and placed within the context of the history it is meant to commemorate, the occasion is one marked by caustic irony and, rather than cause for celebration, is more cause for discomforting concern.
In light of the actions this Congress has yet to take, it is both curious and concerning that this Congress found its way to agree on such a holiday. No George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. No John Lewis Voting Rights Act. No Economic Recovery Act. No commission to investigate the attempted coup that occurred on January 6th meant to stop the authorization of the presidential election — an act that was as much an attack on the Black community’s democratic rights. Rather, we receive from them another federal holiday that costs them nothing either in actual funds or political capital.
First, let’s just acknowledge up front that Black people do not need a federal holiday to celebrate Juneteenth. We’ve been doing so since 1865 without one.
Second, we should remember that those that enslaved our ancestors were known to, on occasion, permit their enslaved Africans one day off or time to visit with their loved ones on a neighboring plantation. This is to say that it is possible for an oppressive system to provide those it oppresses a day off and yet continue brutally oppressing them. These were not motivated by altruism or mercy. It was an explicit act done with the slave master’s best interest at heart. It was hoped that it would keep the threat of rebellion at bay. Just as then, this act on the part of this Congress does not, in itself, equate to freedom or a guarantee of rights. Our struggle at this juncture is not for more holidays when too many of us do not have jobs from which to take a day off. Ours is a struggle for freedom and justice. Just as it was when those Africans in Texas finally were able to walk off those plantations.
How do we reconcile the irony that many of the Congresspersons that voted for this holiday represent states and a party that are and is actively passing legislation that would outlaw the teaching of this actual historic event? The only rational explanation is what I inferred above. That, in the end, this act requires nothing from them, and does nothing to actually respond to the life and death issues that continue to challenge the freedom this holiday is meant to commemorate.
This is a government and a Congress that since Emancipation has been woefully complicit in ensuring our rights are always kept at arms reach even as they continue to provide legislative cover and justification for the white planter class and its benefactors’ unmitigated efforts to return our people to the point of slavery or as close as the law would allow. Even going as far in certain epochs to change the law accordingly.
There is no better person to reference than the one Frederick Douglass to bear witness to the betrayal that the Congress has wrought against the African American community.
In a speech entitled, “I Denounce the Emancipation as a Stupendous Fraud,” Douglass, in speaking about the relationship between Black people and the federal government, indicts,
“Take his relation to the national government and we shall find him a deserted, a defrauded, a swindled, and an outcast man — in law free, in fact a slave; in law a citizen, in fact an alien; in law a voter, in fact, a disfranchised man. In law, his color is no crime; in fact, his color exposes him to be treated as a criminal. Toward him every attribute of a just government is contradicted. … Instead of protecting the weak against the encroachments of the strong, it tacitly protects the strong in its encroachments upon the weak. When the colored citizens of the South point to the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments of the Constitution for the protection of their civil and political rights, the Supreme Court of the United States turns them out of court and tells them they must look for justice at the hands of the states, well knowing that those states are, in effect, the very parties that deny them justice. Thus is the Negro citizen swindled. The government professes to give him citizenship and silently permits him to be divested of every attribute of citizenship. It demands allegiance, but denies protection. It taxes him as a citizen in peace, and compels him to bear arms and meet bullets in war. It imposes upon him all the burdens of citizenship and withholds from him all its benefits.”
Douglass could have given that speech today and not a word here quoted would need to be changed. This is the devastating undeniable truth of American history that they would wish to keep hidden. Yet, he gave the speech in 1888, less than 20 years after the end of Reconstruction. The very government that bestowed emancipation on Black people had betrayed us and abandoned us to make alliance with our former enslavers. This is the same hypocrisy we see today.
Their legislative actions continue to this day as governors, state representatives and local school board leaders in state after state across this country are actively passing laws that criminalize the teaching of this history. Not only do they wish to provide legal sanctuary for those that criminalize our very identities and kill us with their sanction, these states are committed to criminalizing our very history and outlawing the purposeful education of our community’s accomplishments in defiance to the white supremacist notions and laws their ancestors and predecessors put in place.
We are presently living at a moment in US history when the beliefs that gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan are being disseminated by cable news media and uttered from the mouths of elected officials in this Congress. Fact is, their effort to deny the study of what is called Critical Race Theory is itself an act of institutional racism as it uses the institution of the state to actualize their racist ends. Any effort to negotiate with such only further lends credibility to their white supremacist voice and views. Their witch hunt to ban Critical Race Theory is as much motivated by their desire to flood the American consciousness with anti-Black noise as it is to white-out Black resistance from their children’s text books. By denying the education of America’s youth an honest telling of this nation’s history with respect to race and racism, they seek to also cover and deny their actions of this present moment that are entirely racist, most particularly their efforts to undermine voting rights.
The fact of the matter is that to tell the truth of US history with respect to the African American experience is to tell a damning truth that is still continuing. It is to tell a truth that is harrowing in its scope and devastating in its inhumanity. It is to reveal without any possible qualification that every stated justification by them for our people’s enslavement, discrimination and degradation is but a lie. The colloquial term “white lie” is most appropriate here. For this is a lie manufactured by white men with power to maintain said power and to keep Black people out of said power. It is to reveal an ugliness at the core of American identity that touches the lives of every person that has ever lived since Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. It is to hold a living mirror up to a nation that is yet in denial, that believes it can somehow celebrate the ending of slavery of a people it continues to brutally subjugate at this very hour.
To say anything less on this day of days is to not just lie for the sake of saving face, it is to dishonor the legacy and heroism of those this day is meant to commemorate. Harriet, Sojourner, Nat, Gabriel, they’d be insulted. They who fought for our freedom, bled, some executed. And now hundreds of years later, the nation would be enacting legislation across the country that outlawed them once again. Rendering them contraband in their curricula. These who are the veritable heroes of American history. These, who, through their efforts, managed to set the stage to enable the possibility of finally correcting the contradiction set forth by this nation’s founding documents by those who proclaimed liberty for all while they held others in chains, and make this country become the democracy it claimed to be.
How do you think they’d feel if they witnessed, like we do, week after week the news of yet another Black person murdered by the police or lynched in broad daylight in the most brutal and savage of ways? How do you think they’d feel witnessing the raw brutality meted out upon the restrained bodies of Black people crying for mercy? Do you really think they’d be celebrating this new federal holiday? Or would they be outraged by the hypocrisy?
Juneteenth is a holiday to commemorate a date that was the consequence of the deception of white people who didn’t want to accept the reality that the Africans they had owned were now free. Their white supremacist denial of our freedom and rights were motivated by their desire to continue to exploit our labor and profit from the privilege such a structure bestowed upon them. Now we have that date made a federal holiday by a Congress that continues to deny the reality of racism that we yet live under, setting forward legislation that will keep us in political and economic bondage to afford them a privilege only tangible due to the inequality that marks our oppression.
What would they expect of us, our ancestors? To resist. Not to be shamed yet again. They’d want us to organize and fight back. They would, like Malcolm X, not expect us not to settle for symbolic acts when economic equity and real justice is our ultimate goal. In fact, that’s the only way they would accept being honored.
This holiday costs the Congress nothing. They’re literally sitting on trillions of dollars. They have the power to end Black poverty. By defunding the world’s police, the US military, they could end generational poverty in this country and still have the most expensive military in the history of the world.
Juneteenth is Black America’s annual reminder that our freedom has never been supported or affirmed by this country. Our freedom, to whatever degree realized, is only and always due to our own efforts in a country that has yet to fully recognize them and defend them. Juneteenth reminds us that no piece of paper can free us or keep us free. Our freedom is only secured by our will and determination as evidenced in our collective action.
Our honor of them is not in securing a holiday, but in securing the freedoms they fought to see realized. The meaning of this day will be forever lost lest we do just that. The only appropriate response on the part of this government to the oppression Black people have experienced since we have been here, the only response we should every agree to and accept, is reparations. Not just reparations for slavery, but for the systemic racism that has endured for a century plus, all done with the explicit support of this government.
As Frederick Douglass reminds us, there are no days off or holidays in the fight for our freedom. In fact, the measure of our people’s progress is determined by our demand our will to see it through.