What is Juneteenth to America? It Has to Be More Than ‘Black 4th of July’ if It’s to Be Truly Meaningful

Image: TJ Gehling/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There’s never been a time in American history when this nation hasn’t been anti-black. This sober reality means that from the moment the nation declared its independence till now it has been rooted in anti-black racism. To some this may seem a bit hyperbolic when we consider the ubiquitous nature of Black popular culture or that we’re not even a full four years removed from the nation’s first Black president. One could also point to the numerous Black athletes, celebrities, and entertainers who are among the most well-known and beloved Americans in the world. Yet here we stand at the precipice once again struggling with America’s racist past and present posing the question Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so presciently asked in 1967, “Where Do We Go from Here?”

We’ve been here before, from Reconstruction to the Black Freedom Movement of the 1950s and 1960s the struggle to form a more perfect union has been continually been rejected in favor of new intransigent forms of anti-black racism. However, with each return to this very spot a portion of the nation’s soul is permanently lost. Prophets such as Douglass, King, and Baldwin have warned us time and time again that the nation cannot continue on this path and remain whole, though all have gone unheeded, ignored, or even turned into “a flattering mirror.” These individuals spoke the language of a greater moral sense and duty that’s often understood as American civil religion.

Sociologist Robert Bellah defined civil religion as “a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals,” drawn from American history and “institutionalized in a collectivity” that operate “not as a form of national self-worship but as the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it in terms of which it should be judged.” In the immediate aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, scholars of American religion like John D. Carlson and the Religious Freedom Center’s Benjamin P. Marcus bemoaned the potential “death” of American civil religion in favor of a crude ethno-populist nationalism. 

Carlson writes that “Trump has ignored the lessons of innumerable presidents who have employed a capacious civil religion to integrate the marginalized and forgotten into the fold of our common social fabric and political destiny,” while Marcus juxtaposes Trump’s exclusive vision of civil religion with an inclusive model that includes beliefs in core American values; behaviors associated with national rites and rituals (Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving); and experiences of belonging (citizenship by right of birth or naturalization).

While it’s true that Trump has degraded our national discourse, I would argue that the inclusive model of civil religion that both lift up is, for African Americans, a mythic and not-yet-realized version. The core American values they extol have been inaccessible to African Americans, and national rites and rituals such as the Fourth of July are annual reminders that the ancestors of African Americans remained in bondage as the country declared its independence based on the lofty ideals of human freedom. 

It was Frederick Douglass who once queried “What is the Fourth of July to the Slave?” to a Rochester, New York audience on July 5th, 1852. Thanksgiving equally poses a disputed public memory as some Native Americans and their allies since 1970 have designated the American civil holiday as a national day of mourning. Social scientists Eric Woodrum and Arnold Bell in “Race, Politics, and Religion in Civil Religion among Blacks” noted that African American are less inclined to identify with the symbols of American civil religion and more skeptical of the legitimating authority conferred upon government by civil religion.

In this time of turmoil and fractured sense of symbolism it’s unlikely that a source of unity may emerge in a regional celebration of emancipation. For those who are unaware, June 19th or Juneteenth, 1865 was the date that the last remaining enslaved Africans held in Galveston, Texas were emancipated. In response to the news of their freedom they held a celebration that’s come to us today as ‘Emancipation Day’ or Juneteenth. Yet in response to the protest around the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many more African Americans it seems that this week’s Juneteenth celebration may provide an opportunity to add a national observation to the American civil holiday calendar which could actually look like the inclusive civil religion envisioned by Carlson, Marcus, and so many others.

At a dizzying pace, we’re seeing major municipalities, states, and private businesses recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday and elevate the observation of ‘Emancipation Day’ to the status of other American civil holidays. To invoke the spirit of Douglass, however it must be asked, “What is Juneteenth to America?” Is it a hollow attempt to pacify angry Black protesters with a nod towards nominal diversity? 

This should be a national celebration as the nation’s attempt to rid itself of the last vestiges of what many consider the nation’s “original sin” of slavery. However, Juneteenth or Emancipation Day is a minor celebration for most African Americans and has been virtually unrecognized by all other Americans until now. Why? Because once again the nation is on the verge of permanent social fragmentation and upheaval with the world both watching and participating in protest of the nation’s refusal to reckon with its anti-black racism, including its most visible and lethal symptom, police brutality.

For Juneteenth to be a meaningful addition to American civil religion there must be a recognition of what it is not. First, Juneteenth is not the “Black 4th of July,” which would just represent a re-inscription of Black marginalization through yielding to a parochial interpretation of this day as a replacement for the 4th of July by African Americans, though this perception has already gained traction amongst some African Americans. For Juneteenth to be a meaningful addition to American civil religion it must both recognize the historical events represented and serve as a transcendent celebration of the human desire for freedom. Juneteenth must ritualize and symbolize that Black life does in fact matter on a national scale which requires African Americans and all other Americans to see within the Black celebration of emancipation the universal human desire to be free from oppression.

Secondly, Juneteenth must not repeat the mistakes of the inclusion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr holiday in the American civil calendar. The transformation of the radical message and legacy of Dr. King’s life into a bland “day of service” has been a harmful distortion of the meaning of his social justice crusade. Equally important, Juneteenth should not be viewed as a time for African Americans to educate other Americans about the struggles of Black life. African Americans should be allowed to be “off the clock” and observe Juneteenth with the same joviality that we see with other American civil holidays. 

Finally, the recognition and elevation of Juneteenth to national holiday status represents an opportunity to make Black life matter in an area that it has often been excluded from since the beginning of the nation’s history. It’s a chance to ritualize Black freedom as a symbol of what it means to be American, not just what it means to be African American.