I studied the Emancipation Proclamation as a schoolgirl but didn’t hear of Juneteenth till much later. On June 19, 1865, the Union army announced in Texas that all formerly enslaved people were now free. Annual celebrations spread from Black communities in Texas throughout the South and beyond. Urged by activists such as Opal Lee, last year Juneteenth became our newest federal holiday. Lee said, “It is not a Black thing, it’s not just a Texas thing, but it’s about freedom for everybody.”
As a white northerner, how can I join in with joy and respect? The difference between cultural diffusion, appropriation, and assimilation is imprecise. Already some businesses have introduced Juneteenth-themed products and faced backlash. Opinions online vary. Many say to study, recommit, and give the holiday the solemnity of Veterans Day or Memorial Day. Unlike those days, though, it’s fine to wish people a happy Juneteenth. Is it supportive or intrusive for me to enter into Juneteenth traditions like street fairs, rodeos, and barbeque cookouts featuring red drinks and desserts?
We know how to enjoy a festive wedding without making it all about us. We attend by invitation only; we don’t try to dress like the bride or groom; we take our cues from the organizers; we listen more than we talk. We have a great time and remember what it’s all about. This might be a model for a white northerner at a local, public Juneteenth celebration. Thanks to Opal Lee and others, we’re all invited.
Image: 1920s Juneteenth celebration, from a documentary film by Solomon Sir Jones. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.