Juneteenth’s origin dates back to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, learning that they had been emancipated, close to two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had formally been put into place. While Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery, this holiday has not been recognized nationally until recent. Many may just be learning the significance of this holiday. Several work places and law firms plan on making Juneteenth a paid and permanent holiday, including: Latham & Watkins, Morrison & Foerster, and Debevoise & Plimpton; to name a few. While this holiday becomes more mainstream it is important to recognize Juneteenth’s place in American history and to reflect on the long struggle for equal rights.
Pro Bono Net is grateful to Treshauxn Dennis-Brown, AmeriCorps Vista working with our Immigration Advocates Network program, for writing this important piece highlighting what Juneteenth means for him.
This upcoming Saturday marks the national observance of Juneteenth. Traditionally celebrated by African-Americans annually on June 19th and originating in Galveston, Texas, Juneteenth commemorates the very first celebration of emancipation, signifying the end of slavery in Texas, following General Order No. 3 by Union Army general Gordon Granger.¹ Although at first embraced solely by African American communities, Juneteenth has gained traction among mainstream outlets in recent years, garnering state and local recognition across the country, especially as the country comes to grips with a legacy of racial tension. But who is Juneteenth for? Juneteenth can be said to be a holiday celebrating Black liberation, but it is important to remember that many heritages simultaneously reside under the blanket term “Black.”
I am a proud first generation American with heritage deeply entrenched in the Caribbean, boasting primarily Jamaican but also Trinidadian lineages. As such, I sometimes feel as though my plight is somewhat divorced from that of Black/African-Americans, as I cannot lay claim to the legacy of American Chattel Slavery in the same way. Instead, I hail from islands that were colonized by the Spanish and British, each nevertheless saturated with their own horrors, commensurate with the reputation of being sugar colonies in the Colonial Era. Is Juneteenth just for the African-American whose lineage could (or more realistically, could not) be traced back to American slaves who picked cotton in the South, or can other non American Black diasporic heritages be included as an act of solidarity with regards to the common tragic threads in their histories?
While this mainly materializes as an internal thought exercise, the reality remains that of course, despite identifying as a first generation Caribbean-American, son, nephew, grandson to family who immigrated here in the 90s, I and my family are easily welcomed to the fold of Juneteenth celebrations. The ease with which this happens is possible due to the shared connection of the pigmentation of our skin. The fact remains that despite ancestral differences, the plight of Black people, regardless of immigration or residency status, in the United States is almost universally dismal: Black people retain the lowest median income, are currently enjoying the lowest rate of black homeownership since the 1960s, and are disproportionately stopped, arrested, or fatally killed by the police.²³⁴ The statistics prove that diasporic nuances mean nothing in the face of, well, a Black face.
While this might seem the grimmest of ways to endear oneself to a holiday, I am nevertheless excited to have my first day off in my professional career for Juneteenth. The intellectual divide over whom Juneteenth belongs to will hopefully fade over time as Juneteenth continues to attract interest in the mainstream. Soon the question will not be whether Juneteenth is just a “Black holiday,” as Americans as a whole continue to embrace it as a holiday along the stalwarts of Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and the like.
¹Henry Louis Gates Jr., “What Is Juneteenth? African American History Blog,” PBS (Public Broadcasting Service, September 19, 2013), https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-is-juneteenth/.
²Valerie Wilson, “Racial Disparities in Income and Poverty Remain Largely Unchanged amid Strong Income Growth in 2019,” Economic Policy Institute, accessed June 15, 2021, https://www.epi.org/blog/racial-disparities-in-income-and-poverty-remain-largely-unchanged-amid-strong-income-growth-in-2019/.
³Jacob Passy, “Black Homeownership Rate Hits Lowest Level since the 1960s – That’s Unlikely to Change in Pandemic Year 2,” MarketWatch (MarketWatch, March 11, 2021), https://www.marketwatch.com/story/most-black-americans-arent-homeowners-how-can-we-change-that-11615431459.
⁴“Criminal Justice Fact Sheet,” NAACP, May 24, 2021, https://naacp.org/resources/criminal-justice-fact-sheet.