By Pamela O’Loughlin
There are fifteen days between Juneteenth and the 4th of July. The juxtaposition of these two holidays makes me pause and really think about this space. What is Juneteenth? The easy answer is: it’s the celebration of the last of the slaves in Texas being freed by the Union Army. History.com states: “Juneteenth (short for ‘June Nineteenth’) marks the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people be freed. The troops’ arrival came a full two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth honors the end to slavery in the United States and is considered the longest-running African American holiday. On June 17, 2021, it officially became a federal holiday.” I want to make note of the space in time between the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the actual freeing of the slaves in Texas with federal troops supporting this effort by controlling the government.
The 4th of July as defined by History.com: “On July 2nd, 1776, the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence, and two days later delegates from the 13 colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence, a historic document drafted by Thomas Jefferson. From 1776 to the present day, July 4th has been celebrated as the birth of American independence, with festivities ranging from fireworks, parades and concerts to more casual family gatherings and barbecues.” So, one holiday, July 4th, celebrates the freedom of America. Juneteenth celebrates the freedom of a people who had been living as slaves in America for 157 years before America was freed from England. The lingering question being “As we celebrate the freedom of our country, do we believe in and celebrate the freedom of all its people?”
Figuratively speaking, I live in this space between the two holidays. I am biracial and my “outside” or my physical appearance leans toward my European roots and the 4th of July, but many of my core beliefs are 100% JUNETEENTH! At an early age, I clearly learned the space between light skin and dark skin. I remember an experience when I was about five-years old. I was riding in the car with my parents. There was such an energy and excitement in the car. They were on their way to buy a NEW bed! Up to this point, they had inherited every bed they ever owned. To set the scene my dad worked hard and had taken the day off. I remember both of my parents were giddy and the mood so light; I was surprised they did not float out of the car windows!!! When we got to the store my father dropped my mother and me off at the door (Both my mother and I have fair complexations.) As we went in multiple sales people fell over themselves trying to sell my mom a bed. After about the third repetition of, “Thank you, I am waiting on my husband, he is parking the car,” my dad came into the store. In describing my dad, he was a large man with a brown complexation, a broad nose, a short well-trimmed afro and his well know wondrously infectious smile. My mother showed my father what she liked. Then it happened, I remember the moment the balloon of this perfect day sprang the leak, it was almost audible! My mother and father looked around for a salesperson but apparently we were no longer important, seemingly invisible in the empty store. The perfect light blue day turned dark, and I experienced my first heavy red-hot space as we returned home with no bed. The heavy red-hot space is defined by the feeling of being invisible, not enough and unimportant. Today I am the wife to a man with a dark complexion and the mother of a son with a caramel complexion. I have had many times where I have revisited that heavy, red-hot space.
The 4th of July has been around for a long time, and I believe most people understand what it is and how to celebrate it. As a child I celebrated the 4th much like everyone else, with food, music and fireworks. I remember my brother decorating his go-cart for the neighborhood parade. It was such a fun time!
Juneteenth on the other hand? I celebrated my first Juneteenth in 1991, when I first heard of the holiday. I attended by myself because everyone I asked was like June what? No, I’m busy. So, I went by myself, parked along Mt. Vernon Ave here in Columbus, Ohio, and headed towards the music. To be truthful I felt like I was crashing someone’s family reunion. There were a few tents with no sides, a few vendors selling items and a couple of grills going. I went up and talked to a few people and I bought a pair of earrings. I got back in my car, and I have never celebrated (formally) again until this year. Before you question my blackness, please note I don’t celebrate the 4th either. With this thinking, you have to question my whiteness as well. I also live in this space of not being black or white enough. So I focus on being me. I love the idea of America; I love the idea of “All men are created equal.” I love how our country gets out of whack and the constitution swings things back to center.
Back to how do you celebrate Juneteenth? If you are not African American, try to tread lightly. Engage in conversations from a posture of learning. There is always something to learn. Some people may not want to talk to you, respect that. However, you choose to celebrate, focus on learning instead of going on and on about how much you know. You can never go wrong when you celebrate by supporting black businesses. Be willing to be and feel uncomfortable, for this is where true understanding of this holiday and African American history can take root. This holiday is a celebration, a celebration that comes out of struggle and magnifies ongoing struggles. You will begin to see and feel the heavy, red space of others and learn how to prevent being the source of it for others.
I talked to several people in my circle spanning a few generations about Juneteenth. Some uninformed, some have not yet incorporated it into their listings of holidays they celebrate. I am sad to say that most people I talked to did not celebrate Juneteenth. With the recognition as a federal holiday, it is starting to peak people’s interest. My creative friends, on the other hand, celebrated creatively. Local poet and teaching artist, Cynthia Amoah (http://www.cynthiaamoah.com/) shared she performed in a private event and at Juneteenth on the Ave (https://www.facebook.com/JuneteenthOnTheAve) (this is the same Mt. Vernon Ave. I visited in 91’. It’s come a long way!) Here is a listing of all the creative ways Columbus, Ohio celebrated the Holiday including a number of Columbus area teaching artists: https://kingartscomplex.com/juneteenth/
In closing I want to challenge teaching artists to celebrate the concept of Juneteenth every time you lead a class, especially when you come across those learners who think they can’t. Much like the slaves who lived in that space where they were free for two and a half years on paper but needed the support of the federal army to help them walk into their freedom, many of our learners need to be encouraged to understand their learning style and understand they can learn. We as teaching artists can be that support for them to fill that space of the heavy, red-hot “I can’t”, to the reality “I can” so they can fully walk into their full learning potential.
Ways to celebrate Juneteenth:
Small Children: https://happytoddlerplaytime.com/?s=Juneteenth&submit=