“Words of Emancipation didn’t arrive until the middle of June so they called it Juneteenth. So that was it, the night of Juneteenth celebration, his mind went on. The celebration of a gaudy illusion.” — Ralph Ellison, “Juneteenth”
A group of free men, women and children in Richmond, Va., in 1865.Photo Library of Congress
Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York signed an executive order on Wednesday making Juneteenth a holiday for state employees; the same goes for tech companies like Twitter, and even where I work, at The New York Times. This year,Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates the arrival of the news of emancipation from slavery, seems to be a bigger deal across the nation.
But there’s a conversation I’ve been having with my friends: Is celebrating this holiday enough to begin to fix all that’s so very broken? And, one tick further, is the national embrace of what has been known as the African-American Independence Day a dangerous idea? Some people wonder — if we sip on ourtraditional red drinks as we socially distance on screens and porches — will we be lulled into feeling more free than we really are?
Saidiya Hartman, the author of “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments” and a 2019 MacArthur “genius” grant winner whose work explores the “afterlife of slavery in modern American society,” said: “How to live a free life, how one can live, is the pressing question for black folks in the wake of slavery’s formal end.” Ms. Hartman said that imagining a freer life and a more just society has been the purpose of generations of black people since the days of Reconstruction.
“Recently, I heard Angela Davis talk about the radical imagination,” Ms. Hartman said. “And a fundamental requirement is believing that the world you want to come into existence can happen. I think that that is how black folks have engaged with and invested in and articulated freedom, as an ideal and as an everyday practice.”
I couldn’t agree more. As someone who has celebrated Juneteenth for a long time, I think we need it now — not in lieu of the freedom, justice and equality we are still fighting for — but in addition, because we have been fighting for so very long.
The elemental sermon embedded into the history and lore of Juneteenth has always been one of hope. The gifts of the holiday are the moments of connection, renewal and joy for a people who have had to endure so much, for so long.
To me, Juneteenth matters because it says: Keep going, the future you want is coming. — Veronica Chambers
A project by Veronica Chambers, with Tracy Ma, Joanna Nikas, Choire Sicha and friends. Photo editing by Beth Bristow, Anika Burgess, Nakyung Han, Eve Lyons, JuliAnna Patino and James Pomerantz
The hands of Henry Brooks, a formerly enslaved man, in 1941. Photo Library of Congress