Juneteenth and the Complexity of Celebrating Freedom


A few days ago, the American government officially declared Juneteenth a federal holiday. To say that this is a big deal wouldn’t come close to doing the magnitude of this news justice.  A federal holiday that celebrates freedom and Black people? My ancestors couldn’t even fathom it.

In fact, this is one of those moments when my mind wanders to thoughts of my maternal grandmother, Helen. Her Alzheimer’s prevented us from having a single conversation by the time she’d passed when I was five, but my mom made sure I grew up with a great appreciation for her mother and the amazing woman she was despite the challenges life threw her way, as well as the ones she’d inherited as a Black woman. Though I never had a relationship with her, she comes to mind in times when I see growth in my life or the world around me that she would probably never even dream possible for herself or her lifetime, like earning a master’s degree or seeing a Black man serve as President of the United States – twice. I think about how different our lives are with only a generation between them. I’m pretty sure these differences would blow my grandmother’s mind, much like a national holiday that celebrates the freedom of enslaved Black people in America, her family members who were only a few generations removed. She came from a generation of Black people whose goal was to survive, and they set the stage for my generation to be able to thrive.

Still, my relationship with America has been, well, complicated. Sure, I’m grateful for any steps forward in creating a more equitable and inclusive America because progress is always sweet.  But my Blackness won’t allow me to overlook the pain and trauma we have consumed in the last 400 years and, more recently, the evolution of hate, death and fear that forced America to even consider the injustices of the Black experience. I cannot unsee or unfeel all that, and that’s what’s hard to stomach. 

So I’ll admit this recent recognition of Juneteenth feels bittersweet to me. Like reluctant gratitude, if you will. Similar to “celebrating freedom on the Fourth of July holiday knowing that freedom didn’t originally apply to you” vibes.

It was nearly 120 years ago that W.E.B. DuBois gave us language to explain this dichotomy of feelings, known as the “double consciousness” of the Black psyche. He described it as “… a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” I’ve often considered coining the term “triple consciousness” to describe what this concept looks like for me when moving through the world as a Black woman. Regardless, that notion of multiple consciousnesses is more real, alive and familiar in my life these days than ever.

So sure. There’s sweetness in celebrating the concept of freedom in America, in general, in that I consider having freedom at the core of my American identity. But also, freedom was not always and, in many ways, still is not inherent for people like me. Instead, it came at a great cost, and over a long and indefinite amount of time, which makes it hard to celebrate in a truly authentic way: bitter. Celebrating the last of the enslaved Black people becoming free on June 19, 1865: sweet. That day being about two and a half years after said freedom was officially declared on Jan. 1, 1863, in addition to the fact that it was possible for one human being to be the property of another in the first place: bitter. Passing legislation that acknowledges a significant moment for Black people and American history: sweet. Schools giving students a day off school for a holiday rooted in race while stripping students of the opportunity to learn and talk about race: bitter.

More often than not, I have found the bitter overpowers the sweet. That aftertaste lingers on my tongue as a haunting reminder of just how fragile my freedoms are. And all the national holidays and movements will mean nothing if we slip into our American tendency to mute the significance of the day by reducing it to a much-needed long weekend. It will all be just another dream deferred. 

However, while I’m skeptical, I’m hopeful (Thanks, double consciousness!) because if there’s another thing I’ve learned from my ancestors, family, history and Black experience, it is that there is always the sweet hope that things can get better after the bitter. So I hope as Americans, we take our long weekends as opportunities to learn about, honor and truly celebrate Juneteenth. I hope that when it is safe to fully return to “normal,” we don’t. I hope that instead, we create a sweeter, richer normal that involves celebrating all of our cultures and histories. Most of all, I hope that we remain willing to put in the tough, messy and sometimes painful work to make it all “stick” and truly become united. 

That would really blow my mind.