September 5, 2002
The Value of a Day
Juneteenth is still not treated with respect.
The High Holidays are a time Jews reserve for themselves. They don't seek the approval or participation of gentiles. What if African Americans stopped trying to get white people to celebrate with us and recognized that we have been essential in making this nation?
As a black teenager attending junior high school in Hollywood, I was awed by the Jewish High Holidays. This was in the late '60s before Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday became a national holiday and before Kwanzaa had become a year-end holiday phenomenon for African Americans. When I saw the near-empty classrooms taught by substitute teachers on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I saw a people, a fellow minority, with a celebration of their own -- a celebration of their history and their deeply cherished values. In the recesses of my psyche, I was envious.
As I continued my schooling, black pride blossomed. The contributions of African Americans were integrated into textbooks, and black people were depicted with increasing frequency on television and in movies. During that period, the observation of Kwanzaa gathered steam. By the time I graduated college, Kwanzaa celebrations were hosted by major mainstream institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History. And after a long struggle, King's birthday was made a national holiday. My heart let out a tiny "whoopee," and my holiday envy subsided.
Recently, there's been a campaign to make Juneteenth a national celebration. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when enslaved black men and women in Galveston, Texas, finally learned they had been freed under the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued more than two years earlier. Celebrations followed the reading of the proclamation, and that began a black tradition in Texas, where it is now a paid state holiday. It is officially recognized in some form by Florida, Oklahoma, Delaware, Idaho and Alaska. At least a dozen other states are considering legislation to officially recognize it in some way.
Yet, Juneteenth is still not treated with respect. The biggest insult came last year when President Bush celebrated Cinco de Mayo with a festival on the South Lawn, complete with mariachi music and folk dancers. But in June of last year, he issued a one-page letter honoring Juneteenth.
So Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston), wrote Bush saying, "Juneteenth is America's second Independence Day." She added, "The 19th of June is an important day for all Americans to observe."
"Bravo to that salvo," I thought at first. But on second thought, I questioned whether African Americans should push for official recognition.
I began to think about the Jewish High Holidays. Granted, it is a religious observance and an imperfect analogy. That said, what impressed me was that it is a time when Jews simply vanished. The High Holidays are a time Jews reserve for themselves. They don't seek the approval or participation of gentiles. What if African Americans choose a period of time, a day perhaps -- June 19 being as good as any -- when we simply vanish? Not a paid or unpaid federal or state holiday, not a holiday that receives any official recognition whatsoever. African Americans would have to take a personal day or vacation time. It seems the least we can do for the then-newly freed black men and women of Galveston.
Some would argue that mainstream America should be forced to recognize black contributions. Yet, I wonder if the country as a whole has been edified by the way Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been celebrated. Does the holiday really function as a time to commemorate King, or is it simply some time off, an opportunity to run errands or to catch up on the latest Stephen King novel?
White people have never been shy about appropriating as they see fit from black Americans. Perhaps, one day mainstream America will spontaneously give us our due. Until then, African American feelings might continue to get bruised when the White House issues a single-page letter in recognition of what is arguably one of the greatest events in American history. But perhaps it is better to endure that hurt than to have our contributions reduced to a Juneteenth summer sale.
Eric V. Copage, is the author of eight books, including, "Soul Food: Inspirational Stories for African Americans" (Hyperion, $11.95).