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So what do we do with Juneteenth?

So what do we do with Juneteenth?

Dustin Pickett June 16, 2022

My family has gathered to celebrate Juneteenth for as long as I can remember.

Dustin Pickett

I can smell the whole pig (or "hog," as we call it in rural North Carolina) purchased from Well's Pork and Beef, cooking below the earth in a hole dug by my great-uncles and cousins. I can taste the cold and refreshing Bang's strawberry creme soda, just carefully selected from a red cooler filled to the brim with ice from the local fire department. I can hear McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain't No Stopping Us Now” playing over the makeshift sound system, consisting of large house speakers and a cassette player (but not too loud because my great-uncle is a bishop in the Lord's church).

Juneteenth was an opportunity for us to come together as free and proud African Americans living in the rural South. It was a time to celebrate, honor and remember the struggles of our enslaved ancestors and the announcement of their delayed freedom.


Juneteenth (short for “June Nineteenth”), also known as “Jubilee Day,” marks the day that word reached enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, that they were indeed free and that the Civil War had ended. Nearly two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (Jan. 1, 1863) declaring “that all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be free … ” there were still persons unaware of their said “freedom.” Monday, June 19, 1865, became a day of celebration for those formerly enslaved persons experiencing their newfound freedom.

Since 1865, the Black community of Galveston, Texas, has gathered to commemorate and honor the day that “freedom reached the last of the enslaved.” Juneteenth is one of the longest-standing holidays within the African American community and continues to spread.

This year, Juneteenth will be recognized as a federal holiday for the first time since the inaugural celebration. As a longtime observer of Juneteenth, I am both grateful and apprehensive of this historical marker.

A folding chair with signs calling for justice leaning against it
Signs from the 2020 Juneteenth rally and march in Knoxville, Tennessee. Photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash.

On one end, I am keenly aware of the importance of diverse cultural representation. There are apparent benefits to recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday. However, I am worried that the holiday will lose the essence and true meaning that it has maintained for the past 157 years. There was something special about gathering in intimate communal settings, enjoying the company and fellowship of those who had a deep connection and appreciation for the holiday.

The Juneteenth that I’ve come to know did not need catchy napkins, curated ice cream flavors and decorations created by companies whose only purpose was to capitalize on the occurrence. At most, we needed our community, food and time to be together.

So, what do we do with Juneteenth now that it has become a federally recognized holiday? How do individuals who may be outside of the intended community or typical non-observers honor, support and commemorate the holiday or stand in solidarity with those who do? My advice would be to sit quietly, observe, learn and change. 

“Sit quietly, observe, learn and change.”

Although Juneteenth is recognized as a federal holiday, Black and brown people face systemic injustices and oppression on various levels. Many of the same institutions and companies recognizing Juneteenth this weekend lack the necessary resources and policies to support the people intimately connected to the holiday. America has made great strides, and still, more work must be done.

Juneteenth provides an opportunity for individuals to educate themselves on the struggles of Black and brown people and consider how there are still “declared freedoms” that many do not see. To quote James Baldwin, “The paradox of education is precisely this — that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he [sic] is being educated.”

The recognition of Juneteenth is commendable, but more than a federal holiday that runs the risk of being overtaken and watered down by consumerism, capitalism and misinformation, what we need are policies and changes. We need actions that will help to ensure that freedom and access continue in the present day. And that is where those unfamiliar with or outside of the celebrating community can come in.

“Juneteenth provides an opportunity for those who wish to stand in solidarity to seek change.”

Juneteenth provides an opportunity for those who wish to stand in solidarity to seek change. Instead of thinking about performative ways to honor Juneteenth, write your elected officials and advocate for better access to health care, affordable housing, food and education. Consider how you can hold yourself, your institution(s) and others accountable for ensuring that oppressive policies and environments are changed. Please stand up for Black and brown people when it’s uncomfortable and unpopular and there are no rewards. Allow those who celebrate Juneteenth the freedom to do so without a need to be “invited to the cookout.” Finally, use this time, this holiday, as a moment to consider what you are called to do to ensure freedom for all.

As we begin the journey of commemorating and recognizing Juneteenth federally, let us do everything we can to ensure that the observation maintains its true essence. Allow those who celebrate the freedom to do so undisturbed and do everything within your power to ensure that the celebration of freedom is not only historical but contemporary. 

Dustin Pickett is director of multi-ethnic education and development in the Multi-ethnic Education and Engagement Center at University of Dayton. He is pursuing his doctorate in educational leadership.

Emancipation days