What does Juneteenth mean in an era of ongoing racial unrest? Study and celebrate more.

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Around Charlotte and the region, some Juneteenth celebrations started happening well before the June 19 holiday.

In Plaza Midwood, a three-day Juneteenth festival parade hosted by Pape Ndiaye, began last week and ended this past Sunday. Revelers canvassed the streets with colorful and fanciful abandonment.

If you missed that one, our CharlotteFive team has had its best recommendations for June 19 available for weeks for those who like to plan ahead.

Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas, founded by Pape Ndiaye, will host a three-day festival celebrating Juneteenth in Charlotte from June 13-16 in Plaza Midwood.
Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas, founded by Pape Ndiaye, will host a three-day festival celebrating Juneteenth in Charlotte from June 13-16 in Plaza Midwood.

It’s another thing for our social calendars, but Juneteenth is more than that: It’s a day of emancipation worthy of flourish and festive display.

It commemorates the events that took place June 19, 1865, the day when the last group of enslaved Blacks, who lived in Galveston, Texas, finally learned from Union Army troops that they were, indeed finally, free. The Emancipation Proclamation had been signed two years earlier, and while the news spread, freedom wasn’t official until all had heard the truth.

As Americans celebrate July 4th as our nation’s independence from British rule, so does the African American community -- and now others — embrace the history and legacy of Juneteenth, especially since becoming a federal holiday in 2021.

But what does Juneteenth mean in a day and age where racial injustice continues to challenge and confound our society?

Following George Floyd’s murder, protests erupted everywhere. Diversity, equity and inclusion policies, while already in existence in some form, became an established practice at most companies and schools. The Black Lives Matter movement, while already in place before 2020, propelled in significance. Many said, “look at this travesty of George Floyd. We have to do something.” And so we did.

But now it seems much of this progress is unraveling.

“It’s really difficult to celebrate (Juneteenth) when our freedoms continue to be in question and our freedoms, our liberation, continue to be under fire and being threatened and attacked,” said Valerie Kinloch, president of Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte.

Kinloch also notes that many people don’t understand what Juneteenth is — and that lack of understanding hinders its reach in reach and cultural significance.

“We’re not teaching it. We’re not actually teaching. It’s not a requirement in (our) curriculum,” she shared with The Charlotte Observer.

“We need to honor it, we need to elevate it, but people need to understand why Juneteenth is really fundamentally important, not just for Black people, but for this entire country when we have conversations about freedom and justice.”

Kinloch questions how society can expand the conversations beyond higher education to ask what things Black communities need to live out the freedoms represented by Juneteenth?

“How do we center our voices and perspectives in these larger conversations, as opposed to allowing these mandates to come from the top on down and then continue to impact Black communities,” she said. “The way that this country has talked about diversity, equity and inclusion has never been enough.”

Positioned for slow success?

Dan Aldridge, III, a history professor and department chair of Africana Studies at Davidson College, says the struggle for Black people is always happening. Any events that become catalysts for change (such as the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, to name only a few) always will be followed by a period where people will push back.

“It happened after the Civil War with the Reconstruction. It happened after the Civil Rights movement in the 60s and 70s. It happens now. There’s always push and pull back and forth. There’s always a permanent struggle. There’s no, like, ‘it’s over’, “ he said.

We are better off than our grandparents, says Aldridge, who was born during the Jim Crow era in a Tennessee hospital. Americans tend to have an optimistic view of the world, that perfection can be achieved, but “all societies have inequalities and struggles whether they have race, like we do, or not,” Aldridge said.

“They have internal struggles, inequities, class division. These are kind of, like, permanent features of the human condition. We can make them better, but we’ll never entirely defeat them.”

He added that holidays, like anything else, take time to grow on people.

It’s mostly a coincidence that Juneteenth is right at the start of the American summer season and how we culturally celebrate.

July 4th is on the horizon and there’s a heat dome happening in some parts of the country, so the weather is doing its part. There are barbecues, parades, and parties. Juneteenth was celebrated this way for years in Texas and in the south. Black History month is in February and traces its origins to Carter G. Woodson and Negro History Week being honored near Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays. Christmas is right near the December winter solstice festival and Kwanzaa falls right after.

“Frequently holidays succeed because they kind of build on precedents, and what people already think in their culture are sort of established holiday practices,” he said. “I think that’s going to be part of what happens at Juneteenth. It (has) happened to every holiday, if you think about it.”

Give it some time. Juneteenth will find its place among the racial unrest, the good, the bad, the progress, the rollback. Study more to understand. Celebrate more to embrace victory.