Juneteenth’s evolution into a national holiday and meaningful ways to celebrate

Monday will be the second time Juneteenth is a federal holiday. The day honors the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans, but some people are still figuring out how to best mark the holiday. John Yang spoke with two organizers about Juneteenth’s meaning.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    Tomorrow marks the second time that Juneteenth which honors the emancipation of enslaved African Americans is being observed as a federal holiday. But some people are still figuring out how best to mark that holiday. A colleague John Yang spoke with two organizers about Juneteenth meaning.

  • John Yang:

    Geoff, Juneteenth dates back more than a century. It`s gaining traction in recent years with the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and it`s come to mean different things to different people. Two perspectives now from Athenia Rodney, founder of Juneteenth NYC, and Melissa Rohlfs, an organizer of Juneteenth events in San Bruno, California.

    Melissa and Athenia, thank you very much for joining us. Athenia, I`d like to start with you if you could just tell us a little bit about sort of your personal experience or history with Juneteenth. When did you first become aware of it and learn about its meaning?

  • Athenia Rodney, Juneteenth NYC Founder:

    Sure. Well, I first became aware from my best friend, when I was in high school. She talked about Juneteenth and Black Solidarity Day, and then I went to college, and it became something that became more prominent to me, because a lot of people would ask questions, and I didn`t know the answers. So it forced me to do research, it forced me to really learn and understand my history.

    And when I came back to New York, or being away from college, I wanted to make sure that others knew the same because I didn`t feel like it was something that was being taught in the school system. And it felt like the only way that we would be able to learn it as if we taught each other.

  • John Yang:

    Melissa, how about you? How did you first become aware of Juneteenth and learn about its meaning?

  • Melissa Rohlfs, San Bruno, California Resident:

    Yes, I didn`t grow up learning about it in school, and certainly not celebrating it as a child. But I have always been involved in my community in terms of culture and art. So it`s been very recent, as I`ve learned about the history of Juneteenth, and I was excited to incorporate it into my own community and talk to others about incorporating it, you know, just locally as a celebration,

  • John Yang:

    And Athenia, how do you think this is best marked, best commemorated? Is it a day of celebration? Is it a day of reflection? Is it a call to action for the future?

  • Athenia Rodney:

    I think this day should be marked with all of those, it is a day of celebration for all of the history that we have been able to achieve. And the new marks that we`ve been able to make the strides we`ve been able to make. It is also a day of reflection to think about those who lost their lives, to think about the blood that was shed, to think about slavery in itself and how it impacts and still continues to impact us now.

    And also, it`s about unity. It`s about how we are coming together as a community, and how we continue to grow what we`re doing so that we become more successful.

  • John Yang:

    And Melissa told me about when you organized events in San Bruno, what you thought about and how you thought about how these events should be should be held?

  • Melissa Rohlfs:

    Well, for me, I was invited to help plan the celebration with city employees who really lead cultural and arts programming for the community. And in our earliest conversations, one of the things that was important to me was I said, I think it`s important to celebrate black joy, black community and black culture, the way we celebrate those things for lots of other communities.

    And I think that message resonated with a neighbor who was also helping to plan the event and with the staff with the city employees. So we really talked about it being a celebratory event and that little like a picnic that you might see on the Fourth of July.

  • John Yang:

    And Athenia, we`ve seen merchants getting into the act. JC Penney, I know is advertising Juneteenth date sales. We even had Walmart marketing Juneteenth ice cream, what do you make of that?

  • Athenia Rodney:

    Part of my main mission really has been since it`s became — become a national holiday is that it doesn`t become commercialized but it`s more or if it does become commercialized whether it`s through using those who are creating

    things in their own community.

    So for example, if Walmart would have contacted a business that was creating ice cream themselves, that was their brand, that was their business and what they were doing, and they said to them, Hey, how can we help to improve what you`re doing? How can we put what you`re doing on our shelves? I think that would have been a better way to kind of do this.

  • John Yang:

    And Melissa, I imagine your focus also is that you want people to remember the real meaning of how this day started, what was the original commemoration of this day? Do you worry that that might get lost over the years?

  • Melissa Rohlfs:

    No, I think, you know, the Independence Day holiday, we all have barbecues and cookouts and things. But we remember why you know, those fireworks that we enjoy, they`re just beautiful now are a reminder of the battles that were fought.

    I think it is important to explain the history lesson. And certainly in San Bruno celebration, there was a discussion and speakers that talked about the history, but it was overall just a happy celebration.

  • John Yang:

    And Athenia, how about you? Do you worry that as the years go by that the sort of the central meaning of this day may get lost?

  • Athenia Rodney:

    I do. I am concerned about that. Because I feel like with Martin Luther King Day with Black History Month, I feel like it has gotten lost in translation, so to speak. And that`s why we have focused our organization on three pillars.

    And one of our main pillars is education. And then the second is empowerment, and the third and is edutainment where we`re education — educating through entertainment.

  • John Yang:

    Athenia Rodney and Melissa Rohlfs, thank you very much.

  • Athenia Rodney:

    Thank you.

  • Melissa Rohlfs:

    Thank you.

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