Holy days are political. They have always been designated based upon who has the power to say when the calendar is worthy of stopping, slowing down, and marking the life of someone important or something important. One of the long term racial reckonings we have had as a country is about holidays. Thus it has become customary in my social set for everyone to meet July 4th by posting Frederick Douglass’ famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Let me admit that I find the whole performance of making holidays into battlegrounds a bit tiresome. How do we get out of the dialectic of having the state declare that an Independence Day made possible by the bondage of so many is not in fact holy, but unholy? What about Thanksgiving, a day that has been stripped of its political meaning by so many and restyled as an annual practice of gratitude, when that gratefulness was made possible because white people took from the Indigenous what was never theirs to have? They declare these days holy. Those of us who have committed to lives of truth-telling feel compelled to remind people that they are in fact unholy.
We never seem to get any farther than this.
I spend a lot of time wondering and thinking about what a genuine practice of radical politics is, beyond social media profession and declaration. I watch people post their speeches or various forms of dissent and then go on to the cookout anyway. Perhaps this is as it should be – an exceedingly practical way to live into our contradictions. I don’t know. That politics is performative is not the issue. The issue is that the markers between public and private are now so porous (as Black people, I guess they always have been), that too often, it feels like we are all always on stage. In some before that may not ever have existed, it felt like the quality of our public life, was refined by the integrity of our private lives, or maybe that’s just me believing the hype.
I think in the end, I simply feel – that as someone who loves the occasion for the cookout, family and friend time, and collective time off (if you got a good office job of some sort typically and aren’t especially essential) – that my lack of investment in prophesying the unholiness of holidays means I have transgressed in some way, that I am not politically holy enough, that I am not willing to “call a sin a sin” as it were.
Juneteenth, for me, has always simply been a fact of life, something I commemorated before I knew I was doing it. I remember learning the name for it in a book, as a young person, and then realizing that the random parade my mama often took me to on the campus of our local HBCU every summer, always happened right around Juneteenth weekend. That’s the way my mama is – political and intentional, without always being especially explicit about it. I would be there reveling in watching the local Black high school bands, what with their dancers, and drum majors, and sparkly uniforms, doing their best impression of the Grambling State Marching Tigers band. This intramural Black life was its own inculcation, via the glamours of Black performance, of a story that the history books would teach me later. When I, as I was wont to do as a young person, having read a book about it, mentioned to my mama that I had figured out that the parade was a Juneteenth parade, she nearly rolled her eyes, letting me know that I was a bit thick in the head – “because of course, Child,” her eyes, but not her mouth, said. Mama always thought I underestimated her brilliance. I probably did. The way of Southern Black folks is often to teach without telling. My mother knew what I was up against, in my nearly all white classrooms. But doing real Black shit wasn’t a performance – it was a way of life. It wasn’t externalized for the public. It was simply who we were whether or not anyone was looking. I fundamentally prefer my politics and my religion to be exactly this way – the same inside and outside. Sometimes the extreme externalization of our politics seems not to be matched by a requisite internalization; the consequence of this lopsided equation, is that sometimes radical Black politics feels but skin deep. But also, my mama had a particular appreciation for Black drum majors being able to do a deep back bend. It’s an art, consummated only when the plume of the hat touches the ground.
In June 2020, in the midst of the murder of George Floyd and protests and uprisings in every corner of America, the nation discovered Juneteenth. Corporations declared it an official holiday. Black folks up North and late millennials learned of this regional celebration for the first time, and began looking for ways to celebrate. T-shirt vendors began selling swag that said things like “Freeish: June 19, 1865.” Everybody felt like they needed to make a red velvet cake, something we are all told Black people been cooking forever, but something which I swear I never ate until living in Atlanta in the mid-aughts. “All around the world same song,” yes, but every South ain’t the same South, no. The Texans in my life became territorial, reminding people that the events of June 19, 1865 had happened in Galveston, Texas, and that the rest of us better recognize. Many were irritated to see the custom of eating red foods on Juneteenth (something we never did next door in the Boot), extrapolated to contexts where people don’t even know that barbecue ain’t barbecue if it don’t involve beef brisket. My Louisiana girl concurs.
White people, as usual, were surprised that Black people had a counternarrative, that Black freedom didn’t share its holy days with the plunderers.
Confronted with Juneteenth, well-meaning white folks knew they should elevate and acknowledge Black people’s things, but still they missed the lesson entirely.
Juneteenth, the original one, happened because a significant swath of Confederates refused to acknowledge that they lost the Civil War. They simply returned home and engaged in white denialism, acting as though the carnage and destruction wasn’t real, as though their desired outcome was as good as truth. They couldn’t admit that things hadn’t gone the way they wanted, or thought they should, or felt entitled to.
The only thing that Juneteenth can and should mean to white people in 2021 is an opportunity to reckon with the 156 year history and very present threat of white denialism. A significant swath of white people simply refuse to acknowledge that they lost on November 3rd and again on January 5th. They have in great defiance of the truth, decided that if they just don’t concede, they can hold the nation hostage to their vision of a world of Black and Brown subjugation and white dominance. I am not speaking in metaphors here. The consequence of white denialism in the 19th century South was delayed freedom for enslaved Black folks, who simply were never told that they were legally free. Actual people endured extended suffering because white people would not tell the truth.
The threat is the same today, because the roots of the conflict are the same. Having had their white supremacist champion humiliated and unseated by a historic Black voter turnout, the majority of white Republican voters are insisting on a return to unequivocal white dominance and Black subjugation. That’s apparently the only way that being white has any value to white people – if it is legal to place a structural knee on the collective neck of the Black body politic. Having been ostensibly denied, via the Derrick Chauvin trial, the right to do this extralegally, these people want to enshrine racial subjugation into the law again. They want to delay the attainment of freedom again. They might succeed. They might already have succeeded.
When I was in high school, I realized in mildly amused horror, that my small-town, insular Deep South community, signified on the “ain’t dis ‘bout a bitch” character of Juneteenth, by calling it what it was: “Nigger Day.” Now old enough to drive, my friends whispered to each other about whether they were going to go down deep in the country to a rural, small town park, back up in the cut, for “Nigger Day.” I’m not softening it with the “a” at the end because frankly, those debates were a bit anachronistic in the 90s. This was a specific form of Black derision, the art of cultural irony, the kind of hard Black dissent, that was prelude to our being able to live with an inferior freedom, an unofficial freedom, a freedom tied to white folks’ willingness to be honest.
Juneteenth, aka “Nigger Day,” was about our willingness to fashion a freedom that refused white time. It was not a concession to white narratives of Black inferiority, but a restaging and upstaging of the presumptuousness of white superiority. That upstaging happened on the ground of unapologetic Black pleasure. This Black joy is in the lineage of a line that I read in a North Louisiana slave narrative from the 1930s: “sometimes a group of slaves would leave the house and go on the branches to talk and have pleasure among themselves…” (Ms. Florence Bailey, Morehouse Parish, 1930s) In slavery and in freedom, our people have gathered “on the branches,” to have pleasure among ourselves.The temptation, if I’m mildly disingenuous would be to tell you that Jack’s, the park up in the cut (really a broad dirtfield) beneath a sea of pine trees, was our late 20th century brush arbor. The food. The cutting up. The showing out. The macking. The softball tournament. The RC Colas in red plastic coolers. The brown liquor poured as if in secret from the trunk of somebody’s old Cadillac. Certainly, Black life didn’t get no more intramural, than the revelry at Jack’s. But really it was just a park, made magic, by the folks who showed up in Black time, to celebrate Black freedom.
I am sure that some venerated elders and my Texas friends will be mortified by this local bastardization of a holy day they hold so dear. But I am reminded of Ms. Nancy Hall’s slave narrative: “I really did not know that we were free until we moved from [Louisiana]. My son slipped us out of La. [to Texas] some of his family at a time until we all got away.” (Baton Rouge 1930s)
We are grateful for Texas, for Galveston, but what happened in Texas didn’t only happen there. Freedom was eventual but it was not an event. It was episodic, but not confined to one episode. Juneteenth is for everybody Black. It is but the enduring Black freedom celebration in a range of Emancipation Day celebrations that Black people have used to mark belated freedom. And I think, that if the discipline of grace we should have cultivated over this year has taught us anything, it is that none of us can police how others cope with the horrors of any freedom project that depends on white honesty in an epoch of white dishonesty.
So I will mark Juneteenth as I always do, now that summer HBCU parades are in my rearview. I will make my customary “Happy Juneteenth” Facebook post. I will not cook anything red, cuz we don’t do that where I’m from, but I will most likely cook something Black, like Texas-style barbecue. I will pursue pandemic-safe pleasures among my kindred. And I will remember. That the pursuit of Black freedom is a lifestyle. That Black life is holy.
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