Commentary

 Mixed feelings on Juneteenth

June 18, 2021 7:00 am
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 17: U.S. President Joe Biden signs the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in the East Room of the White House. The Juneteenth holiday marks the end of slavery in the United States and the Juneteenth National Independence Day will become the 12th legal federal holiday — the first new one since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was signed into law in 1983. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 17: U.S. President Joe Biden signs the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in the East Room of the White House. The Juneteenth holiday marks the end of slavery in the United States and the Juneteenth National Independence Day will become the 12th legal federal holiday — the first new one since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was signed into law in 1983. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

This weekend we will celebrate Juneteenth. It’s the day we commemorate the end of slavery. As long as I can remember, my friends and family referred to it as “our 4th of July”. It’s always a day of fun, community, and celebration. Juneteenth feels different lately. Last year started our traumatic journey through not only a global pandemic, but also the largest civil rights movement in history. This year we’re still dealing with racism and police violence. How far have we really come?

Earlier this week we saw the Wisconsin Legislature take up bills on criminal justice reform. BLOC and our partners have been saying for weeks that these bills are inadequate and that we deserve better. Some Democrats sided with Republican colleagues who have shown at every turn that they don’t care about our lives or our futures.

We also saw the U.S. Senate vote unanimously to make Juneteenth a federal holiday — of course, Wisconsin’s Republican Sen. Ron Johnson had to throw in his two cents, objecting and delaying the vote, and calling it “strange” to give federal employees a day off “to celebrate the end of slavery” (still Johnson ultimately backed down and voted for it.) I’ve seen people get excited about Juneteenth and, sure, let’s celebrate the small wins where we can. We all could use some positivity these days. But let’s think critically about this. What does a new federal holiday do to push us towards dismantling white supremacy?

W. Kamau Bell (who spent time in Milwaukee filming his CNN show “United Shades of America”) posted on Twitter, “If dismantling white supremacy and ending racism was buying a new car, then a Juneteenth holiday is those weird lights underneath the car that turn on at night when you unlock the door. I mean, I’ll take it but that’s not what I’m here for. That’s not what I need.” 

That tweet summed up my feelings perfectly. I’ll take it. It is a big step for us as a nation. This can lead to continued work and education about our history and force us to reckon with it. 

But while we now have a new federal holiday finally acknowledging our past, we’re also simultaneously dealing with nearly 400 new voter suppression laws in 48 states, a nationwide push to ban critical race theory from being taught in schools, punishment meted out to municipalities for attempting to cut police budgets and redirect those funds into our communities — the list goes on and on. The Wisconsin Legislature can’t even agree on who should be recognized for Black History Month, and just passed several terrible bills under the guise of  police “reform” when the community opposes them. Our very own Sen. Johnson had to voice his objections before voting to recognize Juneteenth. 

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We have a lot of work to do. This is why I’m not celebrating this historic moment the way other people are, and honestly, I wish I were. I wish I could feel the same happiness others feel right now. It’s not that I don’t feel anything, or appreciate the significance of the moment, but I also had a long week dealing with the racism of our Legislature. If we’re not actively tearing down the systems of white supremacy, then this holiday will just be another day for some people. 

Before President Biden signed the Juneteenth holiday into law, he said, “This day doesn’t just celebrate the past, it calls for action today.” Let this be a reminder to us all. After President Obama was elected some thought racism was over. We can’t let this be a similar moment.

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Angela Lang
Angela Lang

Angela Lang is the Founder and Executive Director of BLOC (Black Leaders Organizing Community) an organization dedicated to organizing and building political power in the African American Community. Prior to that she served in senior organizing roles for SEIU and For our Future.

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