Opinion: Juneteenth is the answer to Frederick Douglass’s powerful question
2021 is different, in so many ways.
Last year’s Juneteenth celebrations drew the nation closer to the promise of multiracial democracy that first dawned in 1865, after the Civil War’s end. Many Black Americans expressed great pride in this growing national acknowledgment. Many White Americans expressed deep empathy once they learned about the holiday; Juneteenth briefly became the symbolic center of efforts to understand and grapple with the history of systemic racism against Black people in the US.
Just one year later, troubling signs of racial backlash abound. White empathy over the deaths of innocent Black Americans at the hands of the police, recognition of the 1921 massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma and celebrations of Juneteenth have curdled into resentment.
The GOP’s concerted attacks on critical race theory are an acceleration of long-standing efforts to whitewash America’s past and prevent American schoolchildren from being introduced to both the grandeur and travails of our national history.
Having Juneteenth as a national holiday offers a generational opportunity for Americans to discuss reparations for racial slavery, Jim Crow segregation and the inequities of poverty, health care disparities and violence that are their legacy. But one year after transformative protests and a widespread corporate embrace of Juneteenth, much of this country is showing itself to be unready or unwilling to have those conversations.
None of this should be surprising.
But it must be historically contextualized. History offers us a guidepost to understand our present. It rarely repeats itself but, especially on race matters, echoes previous instances and patterns of anti-Black sentiment.
Juneteenth, in both its historical origins and contemporary resurgence, brings us closer to some uncomfortable truths about American identity. Racial backlash in our nation is not an aberration or paradox; it is at the core of who we are. There has never existed a thriving capitalist economy, democratic culture and national consensus in America not based at least in part on depriving Black people of their full citizenship and dignity.
Systems of punishment that imprison Black women and men can be replaced with innovative social policies and investments that produce thriving neighborhoods. We can educate our children to be critical thinkers strong enough to grapple with this history and come out through the other side with a deeper commitment to national service and a love for America unfettered by myths of exceptionalism.
We are strong enough to be authentically ourselves by facing the shortcomings of the past and present.
The backlash that we have witnessed since last year is as old as this republic, and Juneteenth 2021 will be celebrated against this bittersweet backdrop. Yet, just because we have been here before does not mean this is where we must stay. Juneteenth still offers a bedrock foundation to make last year’s watershed moment of racial and political reckoning into a transformative process that can last.
This article has been updated to reflect House passage.