“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” This is the question that formerly enslaved abolitionist Frederick Douglass posed in a July 1852 speech that would later become one of his most famous works. Douglass’s remarks described how Independence Day, to the enslaved, was not a celebration of liberty from tyranny, but a stark reminder of their continued bondage. He explained that for the enslaved American, the 4th of July is
a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery.
On Tuesday, the United States Senate voted unanimously in favor of a bill that would make Juneteenth a federal holiday. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives followed suit; the bill now goes to President Biden, who will sign it into law on Thursday afternoon. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day that bondspeople in Galveston, Texas were the last enslaved Americans in the nation to learn that they were free. (They had actually been freed two years prior, by the Emancipation Proclamation.) Congress’ choice to recognize Juneteenth’s historical and cultural significance is certainly noteworthy. Yet, in the face of ongoing racial oppression, what, to the Black American, is your federal holiday?
The track record for federal holidays with roots in Black history isn’t good. Such holidays have repeatedly been whitewashed and divorced from their original meaning. As historian David Blight has argued, some of the earliest iterations of the late-spring holiday now known as Memorial Day were borne out of ceremonies to honor Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War. In 1865, Charleston, South Carolina was home to a Confederate camp that imprisoned Union soldiers, many of whom were Black and buried in a mass grave. On May 1, 1865, after Confederate soldiers had surrendered, Charleston’s Black community reburied the dead in a cemetery and decorated their graves. But few people are familiar with Memorial Day’s historical origins among Black soldiers and Black mourners; yearly, it seems, articles appear online to tell us about the holiday’s “overlooked Black history.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is subject to related forms of whitewashing. The holiday was controversial when it was first proposed, but since then, things have changed. Rather than grappling with the complexity of Dr. King’s intellectual thought, particularly his increasingly leftist critiques of poverty and of the complicity of white moderates, MLK Day celebrations frequently de-racialize and de-radicalize his legacy. Rather than interrogating the conditions that motivated Dr. King to claim that “a riot is the language of the unheard,” Americans are far more likely to embrace an inaccurate, colorblind interpretation of his work. For instance, his commitment to peaceful protests is regularly weaponized to oppose calls for racial justice, such as the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Dr. King’s daughter, Bernice King, recently expressed her displeasure at this rhetorical strategy, writing on Twitter: “I wonder how you would feel if people erroneously and arrogantly used your father to justify them being against what he was assassinated for being about.”
Given the ways that Dr. King’s lifework and MLK Day have been distorted, it seems valid to fear that making Juneteenth a federal holiday has the potential to diminish its significance, instead of generating further inquiry into the history of American slavery and emancipation. The context of the passage of this legislation gives advocates for honest discussion of Black history little reason to hope. The vote to make Juneteenth a federal holiday occurred alongside state-level attempts to ban discussions of so-called “critical race theory” in classrooms. At last count, 21 states have introduced bills to ban critical race theory and related topics from being taught in K-12 schools and college classrooms. Meanwhile, as Republican state legislatures pursue voter suppression laws, the 2021 For the People Act—an attempt to protect voting rights for all citizens by establishing automatic voter registration for federal elections, banning partisan gerrymandering, and more—faces an uncertain road to passage in the Senate.
Some politicians, particularly right-wing and centrist US senators, have eagerly obstructed attempts to enact anti-racist legislation like the For the People Act. Most of these same lawmakers have now voted to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. The hypocrisy would be comical were it not so dangerous: in the midst of nationwide, Republican-led efforts to eliminate conversations about the significance of race and racism in the United States, the United States Congress has, with the cooperation of most of its GOP members, endorsed legislation to commemorate the end of racial slavery. It seems clear that the goal in making Juneteenth a federal holiday is not to grapple with this country’s history of racism; it is to stifle critiques of continued racial discrimination.
Passing a bill that would make Juneteenth a federal holiday, in this historical context, is, as Douglass stated of 4th of July celebrations almost 170 years ago, “mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.” Voting in favor of this bill allows politicians to deny allegations of racism, even as they actively oppose measures that seek to redress racial harm, such as reparations, police abolition, and more. We cannot accept empty symbolism in exchange for our rights. Any attempt to commemorate the end of slavery must be accompanied by tangible changes that seek to undo its effects.