I am home today, enjoying a paid holiday away from the workplace, but I’m not entirely sure why. I know that Juneteenth is a day long observed by African-Americans in the United States. I know that it marks, for them, the end of slavery and the beginning of freedom. I fully approve of the celebration of Juneteenth in the United States. I am not sure how being paid to stay home and catch up on my writing and other personal plans contributes to the meaning of this day.
Since colonial times, Africans were involuntarily transported into the western hemisphere to work for Europeans. Most of those Africans were sold into slavery by their fellow Africans, entrepreneurs making a profit off the vulnerability of their neighbors. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to exploit this involuntary labor. First on islands off the coast of Africa, then in the western hemisphere, Portuguese investors raised sugar cane, harvesting the sugar and selling it in Europe, where a growing taste for sugar made the spice a valuable commodity. Spanish explorers added African slaves to their conquered lands as the native population of the western hemisphere succumbed to European diseases such as smallpox and measles. The British and other European colonial governments perpetuated the slave trade.
The Industrial Revolution, beginning in Great Britain, made abolition of slavery possible for the first time in history. Even as the United States declared independence from Great Britain, the place of slaves in the new nation was debated. Some national leaders wanted to abolish slavery from the beginning of the country. They took seriously the words of Thomas Jefferson that “all men are created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Others resisted freeing the slaves. A compromise was reached, when the Constitution was written, permitting slavery to continue in parts of the country but allowing no new slaves to be brought into the country. As part of that compromise, slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person in the national census. Eventually, a war was fought among the states over the issue of slavery. After the war ended, slavery was abolished by the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution. All people living in the United States were declared to have the rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.
Some white people labored to help the former slaves. They established schools in the south, helped to organize black-owned businesses, accepted black members of the government at the local, state, and national level, and required the state governments in the south to accept these changes. Others raised money to send former slaves and their families back to Africa, creating a country called Liberia. After time, though, people rose to power in both southern states and northern states who were less interested in equal and fair treatment for black citizens. Some former slaves became tenant farmers, working the same land for the same owners for a share of the profit but barred from social advancement. Some former slaves or their children moved north where they found factory jobs but were forced to live in substandard housing in segregated neighborhoods of northern cities. During the course of the twentieth century, a Civil Rights movement developed to challenge laws that perpetuated social, political, and economic differences between black citizens and white citizens. Some efforts toward justice succeeded, while others failed. Some efforts toward justice made life better for black citizens of the United States, while others continued to trap them in a system that diminished their opportunity for success in the United States.
Recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday—and making it a paid holiday for all workers—seems to me an empty gesture of goodwill toward African Americans. By all means, we should celebrate African American culture. African Americans are welcome to preserve their traditions and to share them with their neighbors, and we should be glad to take part in their celebrations. In this way, Juneteenth can be added to ethnic holidays which include Chinese New Year, Saint Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Octoberfest, and any other celebration that focuses attention upon one of the many groups within the United States of America. Schools, libraries, churches, businesses, neighborhood associations, and other gatherings can and should make all these days opportunities to remember and enjoy their heritage of our particular group. They can and should make all these days opportunities to learn about the heritage of other groups of people who share our cities, states, and country.
Celebrating an ethnic heritage is a good thing. Striving for liberty and justice for all people is another good thing. They do not often mix. Doing the first might distract many people from doing the second. Doing the first in a thoughtless and careless way might even create barriers that keep us from doing the second. A better country will not be formed by adding a holiday or two to the calendar. A better country will be formed when we see and hear each other, learn from each other, care about one another, and work together for the good of all. J.