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What is Juneteenth? 4 things you should know

Amid growing protest movements against racial inequalities and police brutality against black Americans, Juneteenth — the day that news of the Emancipation Proclamation signing reached the farthest U.S. state — is taking on renewed significance this year.

President Donald Trump drew criticism earlier this month for planning a rally on the holiday, June 19, in Tulsa, Oklahoma — the site of a devastating race massacre in 1921 that killed as many as 300, destroying the local black community. He later rescheduled the rally to June 20, but professor Mark Anthony Neal said the “tone deafness” of this move has brought more attention to the holiday.

Neal, who teaches African and African American studies at Duke University, and the PBS NewsHour’s William Brangham took audience questions on Juneteenth and its significance today.

What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth recognizes the day in 1865 when Union Gen. Gordon Granger read the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, Texas, signaling to slaves living in the farthest reaching U.S. state at the time that they were freed.

Though the proclamation was signed two years earlier, many slaves had not been formally informed of the news because networks of communication were slow-moving at the time, Neal said.

Neal said he was struck by the language used in Granger’s announcement, which made a point that “the formerly enslaved would continue to work, try to pursue wages, and their idleness would not be accepted,” even if they were not offered a job for a fair wage. Neal points out that these former slaves were “enticed and forced to work” even after slavery was formally abolished in the U.S.

How black Americans experience Juneteenth

Juneteenth celebrations vary based on where you are in the U.S. “It’s an opportunity for particular black local communities to be able to celebrate their own history within those regions as they reflect on what Juneteenth has become,” said Neal, noting that the celebrations typically center around spirituality within the black community, with food and music playing a prominent role.

He added that Juneteenth has taken on greater significance for black Americans in recent years, as “everyday attacks on black freedom and black humanity” have intensified, and drawn interest from more young people, as well.

Neal noted that Juneteenth celebrations have a very different feel than U.S. Independence Day. “Many African Americans have real anxieties in terms of their relationship to Independence Day, and how their ancestors didn’t benefit in the same way,” noting that Juneteenth celebrations typically eschew fireworks and fanfare for more subtle expressions of remembrance.

How can white people commemorate the day?

Neal said that white people who want to join the black community in commemorating Juneteenth should look beyond symbolic gestures. “There should be a space to bring as many people to the table as possible,” Neal said, noting that he’s had similar conversations in his classes at Duke about the role white students can play.

“These folks can then become agents in other spaces to be able to pass on and engage in the kind of information and teaching that has to occur; that can’t solely be the responsibility of black Americans in the country at this moment,” he said.

He also cautioned that white Americans should be mindful of what their black friends and acquaintances are going through before engaging with them about the holiday. The recent killings of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and other black people at the hands of police, Neal said, was just a continuation of what black Americans have been witnessing in their communities for centuries, and many are “weary and tired” of it.

“What’s more important is for you to understand the gravity of this moment and share with folks like you,” Neal said.

Should Juneteenth be a national holiday?

On the question of whether Juneteenth should be a national holiday, Neal said that it could present an “ideal opportunity for the nation to reflect on something that was incredibly traumatic, not just for black folks in this country but for the nation as a whole.”

Trump’s recent decision to hold a political rally on Juneteenth highlighted a “tone deafness” about the moment, Neal said, that nevertheless brought the holiday to the forefront of the national conversation like never before. “The idea that we have major corporations giving workers time off to reflect on Juneteenth — this is something you could have never anticipated two weeks ago, let alone six months ago,” Neal said.

He cautioned, however, that many national holidays have a tendency to lose their historical significance and simply become a day off to many Americans. This is true of Labor Day, for example, which is intended to recognize the history of the labor movement, but is largely used now as a holiday to hold cookouts marking the end of summer.

“I think we’re in a moment where Juneteenth, because it’s so connected with what is happening now across the nation … might resonate now in a way that some other holidays don’t,” Neal said.