Juneteenth is coming on Friday. The holiday celebrates the emancipation of African Americans from slavery in the South and is keyed to the day the Emancipation Proclamation was read to the newly freed in Texas: June 19, 1865.
Through the years, the celebration has meant different things in different places to different people. It has spread steadily throughout the United States, its organic growth no doubt due to the fact that — of all the things we celebrate publicly in this country — the ending of chattel slavery should be one of the most auspicious. In Topeka, with its rich history of civil rights activism, Juneteenth has been a prime opportunity to share history as well as celebrate with family and friends.
This year, Juneteenth has a different cast. The ongoing protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and violence against African Americans in general has electrified communities across the nation.
The question we all face as this day approaches is simple: Have we truly ended the dark legacies of slavery and discrimination? Or do they endure, sometimes quietly and sometimes not? Have we truly moved forward as a united people, with one voice and purpose? Or does shameful separateness endure?
The answer should be sadly obvious.
So on one hand, this Juneteenth seems like a poignant occasion, rather than a celebratory one. White Americans should have been doing so much more, should have done so much better, to truly change this country. And in this age of COVID-19, with the stark differences in outcomes in illnesses and deaths between black and white people, we can see how deep the challenges go and how far they spread.
But on the other hand, the protests across the nation should be a source of profound hope. They show an array of people of different races and ethnicities coming together to demand change. The crowds are not solely made up of black or brown people. They also comprise white people, Latino people, members of the LGBT community and beyond.
The ideals behind this celebration endure. True, full freedom from discrimination and inequality might not have arrived yet. But so many people from our country have seen what they must do, and they have raised their voices to do it. Surely that’s worth acknowledgment, even as we embark on the challenging road ahead.