Gabriella: There are a lot of age-old black Southern traditions that seem to be going out of fashion—ironing, wearing stockings, cranking that Soulja Boy, respecting your elders, and the like. We never really thought, or realized, that Juneteenth was one of them.
Michaela: For those of y’all who don’t know, every 19th of June (Juneteenth, get it), black southerners celebrate the emancipation of the last slaves in the Confederacy, who were down in Texas. News of the Emancipation Proclamation traveled slowly throughout the South, since infrastructure was poor, especially in rural areas, and so it was years after these slaves were freed that they knew it.
Gabriella: As a child, I definitely knew my way around Juneteenth. I’m not gonna lie and say we celebrated it as frequently or fervently as we did the Fourth, but I think this had to do with timing more than anything else (no one gets the June 19th off from work.) At the very least, I remember my mother sucking her teeth and shaking her head every year we forgot to commemorate its passing.
I came to think that Juneteenth was a holiday only grown folks celebrated, something they did in the kitchen while my cousins and I were stuck outside. I had these grand daydreams of hosting Juneteenth barbecues in my brownstone backyard, with everyone dressed in all white (I know, Jack and Jill strikes yet again.) Now that I’m somewhat out of my childhood, it’s been my great surprise that no one but your meemaw still celebrates Juneteenth. Absolutely no one in Philadelphia knows what this is, and even back home, my family barely knows when it’s celebrated, even though there are literally only 7 options. (Full disclosure: when I say “family,” I only polled my siblings, and only my younger brother responded. He doesn’t know when Juneteenth is, but has heard of it. My mother deeply is upset by this, but he’s the youngest, and claims to be from the DMV despite only living there for five years, so it was bound to happen.)
Michaela: As a child, I viewed Juneteenth as a secular watch night of sorts—like if Fourth of July and Black History Month had a baby that only lasted one day. It was never something that my mother and I observed in our household, though Columbia had Juneteenth events and I knew other members of my family celebrated. It was just never something we prioritized. As I got older and more hotep-adjacent, it became something I was more interested in celebrating, but I never found the formalized ways to do so.
Because we’re both a part of the problem with Juneteenth being dead, we decided to look around this year and see what, exactly, was still celebrated in our current cities of residence—one northern, and one southern.
Gabriella: Philadelphia has its own traditions of black history, the biggest one in June being the Odunde Street Festival. Odunde is huge—thousands of people attend each year, and they have a host of diaspora-inspired performers and vendors on each South Philly block they occupy for the day. To be fair, most people don’t exactly know what Odunde celebrates, either—most people think it’s like Oshun’s birthday, but from what I can gather from the oldheads, it’s essentially Nigerian New Year. Either way, people show up and show out, bringing their finest hotep fashions and thotfits every year.
The city’s celebration of Juneteenth, then, seems to constantly be in Odunde’s shadow**—in part, I’m guessing due to the black immigrant population Philadelphia has that my home doesn’t. Even in West Philadelphia’s predominantly black schools, you can see students of different religions and countries of origin, meaning that everyone may not relate to American slavery in the same way many South Carolinians would. To my friends here, Juneteenth is some sort of black holiday that the bougie old ladies at the museum try to make everyone else celebrate. I think this is an important point—any celebration of Juneteenth that doesn’t convey its radical and landmark shift from the old into the new does its legacy a disservice.
Michaela: I looked high and low for a Juneteenth celebration within reasonable distance to attend, and I really could not find one. Columbia has a trash history of not keeping up with cultural events (largely because it’s a city founded on convenience and white supremacy), but that’s for another post. Anyway, the point is this: Columbia has decided that Juneteenth events are not a thing anymore, and I’m heartbroken about it. Come on y’all, what you doing? I did find some events that were happening in Charleston, a few more in Rock Hill, and plenty all over North Carolina, but I refused to go to the lesser Carolina to celebrate my blackness.
Part of the reason for this is black Columbia’s lack of secular public spaces. Most of the Juneteenth programs I could find were being held by churches, but Juneteenth isn’t really a religious event (even though what black event isn’t religious in some way?), and I think the lack of religious ties to the holiday has caused it to fall by the wayside when it comes to formal organizing.
It’s also because Juneteenth’s has evolved as the black community’s ideas of liberation and freedom have changed. With the recent release of documentaries like Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and the crippling redundancy of our failing criminal justice system, Juneteenth’s declaration of the end of slavery rings hollow. It is difficult to imagine Juneteenth being a truly joyful occasion in the shadow of tragedies like the acquittal of Philando Castile’s murderer or the recent death of Charleena Myles. Maybe we should be re-reminded of its roots, and start seeing Juneteenth as a day to continue organizing toward our freedom, instead of celebrating the scraps we’ve been given.
I think the other main issue, which is a lot less deep, is that Juneteenth doesn’t consistently fall on a weekend. A lot of the events I found for Juneteenth were being held in early June, on the weekends before. No one is getting time off to go celebrate our supposed liberation, especially not in Southern states which still celebrate Confederate memorial days.
Gabriella: All in all, we’ve kind of realized that black celebrations across the Mason-Dixon aren’t always that different. Like Michaela’s talking about on Friday (shameless plug), we all have this murky connection to another continent and our past that we’re trying to grapple with in the places we consider to be our homes. For us, part of that grappling comes through Juneteenth, which is inherently Black American. For some Northerners, it may come through Odunde, which isn’t. If nothing else, Odunde is an amazing time—people I know here look forward to it every year, even if it’s mostly the same—maybe because it is. The festival meets people where they are—exhausted, or displaced, or disenchanted—and gives them something authentic and innocent to celebrate. I think this idea of keeping our history and traditions reliable, but not stagnant, is to be applauded, and replicated. This time, in this way, there’s almost something to be said for Northern oblivion.
For information about the holiday that won’t put you to sleep, we’d recommend this NYT piece about the food of Juneteenth.