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Juneteenth: It’s Complicated

This week, democracy-ish, celebrates its 100th episode just in time for Juneteenth.

  • Juneteenth is the United States’ newest federal holiday. After the House overwhelmingly passed the bill and the Senate unanimously voted for it as well, President Biden signed it into law on Thursday.

  • At the same time, the same GOP members who voted to make Juneteenth a holiday are railing against critical race theory as a curriculum in public schools. What is so threatening about examining history from a nonwhite perspective?

  • Recent shows like “Exterminate All the Brutes” and “High on the Hog” are essentially educating/entertaining the public with a similar lens. What can they teach us about the hidden history of Black America?

On Wednesday, the United States Senate did something that, in our polarized nation, is unfortunately, frustratingly rare: It finally agreed on something. After the House passed the bill with just 14 GOP detractors, the Senate unanimously approved legislation making Juneteenth a federal holiday. President Biden signed it into law on Thursday.

“At the same time, those same Republican politicians are doing everything within their power to erase critical race theory and defund public schools that want to teach it,” says Danielle. “So they're like, hey, Negros, here's a holiday for you. We hope you enjoy your day off.”

Republicans know that encouraging real analysis of our history would mean admitting “the f**kery” of racial injustice, and it would suggest “reparations are coming next,” she adds.

If you teach “all of the ways in which you have robbed Black people of wealth from the moment they stepped foot on our shores, now you owe us something.”

That’s not the only reason why Danielle and Toure’s feelings about our newest holiday are … complicated.

“What is the point of a Juneteenth holiday if we do not understand what it is?” asks Toure. “Juneteenth commemorates the continuing effect of slavery on America and the fact that it remains something that we need to think about, to honor.”

But the conservative establishment seems hellbent on erasing everything that led up to it, and the after-effects of the hundreds of years the U.S. built power on the backs of enslaved people. And furthermore, Juneteenth commemorates the day (June 19, 1865) when enslaved Black people in Texas learned they had been freed –– well, some of them anyway –– nearly two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

“So yes, let's have a day off,” Danielle deadpans.

Episode Highlights –– Happy Juneteenth

‘Freedom’ deferred

It didn’t happen all at once on a specific day, Toure notes. “The news took time to arrive in that period. And I'm sure white people were not dying to let them know as fast as possible that they were able to go.”

Plus, “freedom” was a relative concept. The newly freed slaves had no money, property, or civil rights to speak of.

“I can't even imagine what it was like,” says Toure. “After all the shit you've been through, now you're free to go. Here’s… nothing. How did you get through the next few days and weeks? It wasn't like everyone was suddenly handing them jobs.

That’s why many formerly enslaved people continued to work for their “masters.”

“I'm sure they weren't, like, now we're going to respect you. Now we're going to give you good jobs. Now we're going to give you fair wages,” he adds. “No, the former slaves were getting screwed yet again.”

Is Juneteenth a ‘toothless holiday’?

The uncomfortable truth about Juneteenth is precisely why an open dialogue about American history is crucial. But critical race theory –– aka the truth –– is Fox News’ latest obsession; angry parents at school board meetings railing about their children being “indoctrinated” are getting more air time than –– well, any actual news.

“Most of the people who are against critical race theory could not define it,” says Toure. “But we're talking about teaching reality.”

Meanwhile, in Congress, our elected officials are “going to pat themselves on the back” about passing the Juneteenth legislation, says Danielle. “Look at us. We did something for the Blacks.”

That’s why, at least as far as our current national conversation is concerned, “it's a toothless holiday. Because if you don't understand why Juneteenth matters, then what is the point in a day off? You're not actually going to teach it.”