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Juneteenth: The Overlooked 'Independence Day'

If we can't celebrate different types of people and rejoice with them in their season of glee and jubilation, then what kind of "land of the free" is this, anyway?

Juneteenth: The Overlooked 'Independence Day'
News Desk

I want to begin this article by saying that I was raised to be about as patriotic as it gets. I was born and bred in the "Bible belt" where we learned to say "thank you for your service" before we could even comprehend what those words truly meant. My father is a highly respected and high-ranking Houston firefighter, and he is following in the footsteps of three prior generations of Houston firefighters within our direct lineage. My maternal grandfather served in the U.S. Army, and I have multiple family members and personal friends who have served and/or are currently serving in our nation's military. And lastly (probably most important), my husband is currently serving as a Sergeant in the U.S. Army, as well. So I think it goes without saying that I have the utmost admiration and respect for public servants and first responders of all kinds.

I love our nation's military and I love this nation. But I am not a blind patriot with my head stuck in the sand. I will always support our troops, but I will very rarely support the ugly wars that we fight (both literal and figurative) across national borders and/or within our own walls.

I will be the first person to admit that this great nation in which we love so dearly is filled with hatred, ugly politics, extreme corruption and institutionalized oppression and racism (just to name a few). I love America and I am grateful that I live here, but I am not blind to America's obvious flaws.

War and political nonsense aside though, I think it is worth noting that America is already great, but let's not be ignorant, America is certainly not the "land of the free" for every race, religion and sexual orientation out there. So let's stop treating it as such. The sooner we can recognize our legitimate internal problems, the better off we will be. Our gullibility is getting us nowhere.

With that said, I can assume that every American reading this is well aware of our beloved Independence Day recently passing, a day in which we celebrated two hundred and forty-one years of "freedom". There were fireworks, hot dogs, sparklers, color-coordinated outfits and endless Facebook posts saying the same shit over and over. Sounds like the typical American holiday, am I right? And I am not hating on any of that (okay I am hating on the Facebook posts, because they're completely unnecessary). But details aside, I found it rather odd that we are all conditioned to celebrate the crap out of Fourth of July, yet just fifteen days prior (on June 19) we acted as if there was nothing to be revered.

You might be thinking, "June 19? That was just another Monday!" And to some Americans, it was in fact, just another hot summer Monday, but to 46.2 million Americans, that day means absolutely everything.

During the Civil War, in Galveston, TX on June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger (of The Union) made a statement proclaiming to the people of Texas that African-Americans are freed and equal beings. His impactful words on that day were the historical basis on which the celebration of Juneteenth was founded.

Ironically though, this was 2.5 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted. While the slaves were freed "on paper", the actual process of giving African-American citizens their freedom took many, many years to fully achieve. Some would even say that the movement of emancipation took decades and centuries to fully obtain, and that we are still fighting the after-effects of slavery even up until this very day in 2017. In fact, most intelligent and informed Americans would agree that we have not yet broken the chains of institutionalized racism. We cannot deny that undoing the damage of a complete decimation of one oppressed race is no easy fight. However, in this particular case (in Texas in 1865), it is apparent that some of the Confederate states did not want to let their slaves know that they were freed, and that is why there was such an obvious delay of this good news in various states.

Ultimately, there are multiple dates that could be remembered and celebrated regarding the legal "freedom" of African-Americans. For example, the day that President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation Order in 1862, the day that the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in 1863, the day that the 13th Amendment was officially passed in 1865, the day that Robert E. Lee (of the Confederacy) surrendered to the Union in 1865 or the day that the Civil War officially ended (one month after the surrender) in 1865.

Reverend Ronald Myers (Founder and Chairman of National Juneteenth Observance Foundation) says this, "We may have gotten there in different ways and at different times, but you can't really celebrate freedom in America by just going with the Fourth of July."

I am sure someone is sitting here reading this and shaking their head in disbelief. You might be saying, "well... I'm not African-American, so why would I celebrate their freedom?" And that is a great question, but I have an even better answer for you.

You should celebrate this, because the emancipation of a HUGE portion of our population is a big freaking deal. Yes, Independence Day is great and I support all of the hot dog eating and beer drinking that your heart desires. But the sad reality is that the Fourth of July is a symbol of freedom only to a mere percentage of Americans. Some would even argue that in the year 1776, white males were the only truly "freed" individuals at that time, seeing as how various women's rights weren't legally put into place until various decades (and sometimes centuries) later. But that is another argument entirely.

The point is that while the Fourth of July symbolizes "freedom and justice for all", freedom and justice were very much delayed for many, many people in this country for many, many decades.

In addition to the fact that you should care about all kinds of people and their various backgrounds and the days in which they received their freedom, I would like to point out that we are a nation that loves to celebrate. We celebrate an originally pagan festival that honored fertility, otherwise known as Valentines Day. We recognize the Irish in March for St. Patrick's Day. We drink margaritas and eat tacos in May in honor of Mexico's victory over the French in 1862 (no, Cinco De Mayo is NOT Mexico's Independence Day). We glorify an ancient annual harvest ritual which centered around exorcism and other "dark" things, otherwise known as Halloween. And lastly, we commemorate the genocide of over 11 million Native Americans and call it a peaceful and pleasant "thanksgiving" meal. Have I made my point yet?

Not only are the holiday celebrations within the U.S. a bit skewed in judgement and understanding, but they are also not specific to one culture or race. The last time I checked, you don't have to be Irish to crack open a cold one in honor of St. Patrick's Day. You don't have to be Mexican to appreciate Cinco De Mayo. Heck, you really don't even have to be Christian to celebrate the generosity or excitement of Christmas. So why do we think that we must be black in order to recognize and appreciate Juneteenth?

What is most upsetting to me, is that out of all of the culturally-enriching holidays we hold high (federally and/or otherwise), Juneteenth is not one of them.

Remarkably, Texas was the first state to recognize Juneteenth as an official statewide holiday in 1980, and various other states have followed suit over the years. However, on a national level, Juneteenth is nothing more than an "observance". Which would explain why the majority of public schools fail to educate their students about the origin or existence of Juneteenth entirely.

I, myself am an ashamed victim of the public school system in the state of Texas (where Juneteenth is supposedly recognized), and yet, my parents were the ones to teach me about the historic value of this day. In my 12 years of public education and two years of continued education, I have never once heard an instructor or professor acknowledge the day at all in a classroom setting.

"A national celebration of Juneteenth, state by state, serves a similar purpose for us. Every year we must remind successive generations that this event triggered a series of events that one by one defines the challenges and responsibilities of successive generations. That's why we need this holiday," said former State Representative Al Edwards.

I will never deny that days like Juneteenth and Martin Luther King Jr. Day probably make a portion of Americans feel uncomfortable. It makes sense, considering how these precious days are only reminders of the white man's relentless rule over the U.S. and how that has proven to be a disaster time and time again. However, a life of comfort and "safe spaces" should not come before a day of celebration and freedom for our black brothers and sisters.

There are undoubtedly many moments, days, years and generations throughout history that are embarrassing and shameful to look back on, slavery and the institutionalized racism in this country are just two of many, many more horrific examples. But Juneteenth is not intended to bring harm or "disturb the peace" at all. Juneteenth is a day of reflection, and above all, a day to celebrate and speak highly of, for it symbolizes "freedom and justice" to a very important and honorable group of people in our country. In my opinion, African-Americans were absolutely crucial in the building and the birth of our great nation. They were unsung heroes in a time and place where they weren't even recognized as real people. (See: 3/5 Compromise for further details).

America is not a "safe space" mentally or emotionally, and I have no desire for my country to ever be a place like that. I want to live in a place that is sometimes uncomfortable, and a place that requires intellect and thought-provoking conversation among citizens. I want to live in a nation that recognizes the mistakes made in generations past, and is not afraid to resolve the conflict that follows. I want my children to grow up in a place where there are opinions and options and choices and above all, freedom for every single person within our borders, especially people of color who have historically had to endure (oftentimes) a much harder fight than their white counterparts.

If we can't celebrate different types of people and rejoice with them in their season of glee and jubilation, then what kind of "land of the free" is this, anyway?

I'm not saying that we should discontinue celebrating the Fourth of July or suggesting that you go burn your American flags in protest, but I am asking my white friends and family to think deeply about Juneteenth and the obvious attention it should have been receiving for the last one hundred and fifty-two years, and certainly should be receiving now. This holiday needs to be nationally honored as a legitimate day of celebration and freedom. Juneteenth needs legitimacy for the sake of our African-American citizens and for the sake of legitimate "freedom and justice for all".

So next year on June 19, I encourage you to eat good food, light some sparklers, put on your "Sunday best" attire, pop some fireworks (if your location permits), and hell, you can even make one of those sentimental Facebook posts if you want. But if nothing else, take at least a few moments out of your day to reflect on the unfortunate decisions our country has made, and discuss the emotional and literal meaning of this day with your friends and family. Talk about freedom on Juneteenth (the same way that you would on the Fourth of July) and appreciate not only your own, but your fellow American's freedom, as well.

The United States of America may have been founded on the idea that only white males are truly free, but that is not the America that we live in today, and PRAISE GOD FOR THAT! While we have plenty of crisis and controversy in the U.S., I am proud to say that everyday we seem to move more towards a land of true freedom, a land that accepts, loves and celebrates people for who they are. That is my version of a "great" America. What is yours?

"Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another...." Romans 12:15-16
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