Juneteenth, as Explained by Black-ish’s Peter Saji

By Peter Saji

Those of you with iPhones may have noticed your calendar has identified this coming June
nineteenth as, “Juneteenth.” Don’t know what that African American holiday is? Don’t worry;
you’re not racist. Despite this month being the 153rd anniversary of the tradition, it’s still so
relatively obscure that a significant number of black people just learned about it as well.
June 19, 1865, or “Juneteenth,” is celebrated as the United States’ last day of slavery. I know what you’re thinking: “But didn’t the Emancipation Proclamation free slaves in 1863?” 

Yes, but no. 

While Abraham Lincoln’s decree did technically free slaves, there was still a large
contingent of southern gentleman fighting to un-free them. That means slaves weren’t truly
emancipated until the war was over two years later. Again, I know what you’re thinking: “But if
the Civil War ended in April 1865, why is Juneteenth celebrated an entire two months later?¹”

I suggest you brace yourselves for some white guilt.

It turns out Texas landowners felt one more cotton harvest mattered a little more than black
people. Without the internet or any other means of quickly disseminating information, the
only thing slave owners had to do to keep their slaves from being free was to not tell them they
were free. So, for more than sixty days in 1865, “free” black men, women and children toiled in
the fields until an army ship finally arrived (which, was coincidentally right after a cotton
harvest) to break the news slave owners had already known.

Bummer, right? Well, on a lighter note, let’s talk about strawberry soda.

Shortly before my people were all-the-way emancipated, strawberry soda had just been
introduced to the South. That means it was the newest, coolest, shiniest thing that black folk
weren’t allowed to touch. Now, if you spent years watching white people sit on porches
sipping this mystery beverage while you cooked in the sun when you finally got your hands on
a bottle, it would probably taste, literally, like freedom. This probably explains why Juneteenth
barbecues are traditionally celebrated by consuming red foods and drinks – hibiscus tea, red
velvet cake, and another, unnamed red fruit I have difficulty admitting is part of the festivities.²

If Juneteenth is a holiday so rich with history and ritual, why haven’t you heard of it? Well, my
family were sharecroppers in Georgia until the Klan chased us to West Virginia. As you might
imagine, when you’re frantically leaving town in the middle of the night, you don’t always have
time to pack your traditions. Later, as West Virginian opportunity dried up, forcing my family
and others into more urban areas, the holiday became even more difficult to honor. After all,
in the height of Jim Crow, asking your white boss for the day off to celebrate a Negro tradition
was wildly unadvisable.

Black Employee: May I please have tomorrow off to celebrate the end of slavery?
White Boss: Boy, who told you slavery ended?!

That’s why Juneteenth was gradually forgotten by many whites and blacks alike; which, is
unfortunate since it’s the only holiday that marks the day everyone in America was free. While
taking nothing from the Fourth of July, I think there’s room for both traditions. Instead of
sweeping slavery under the rug, I believe celebrating Juneteenth forces a dialogue. And
even if it is uncomfortable to talk about slavery, actually having the conversation could finally
help this country heal from that shameful chapter of our history.

Last season, I wrote an episode of Black-ish called “Juneteenth.” In it, Anthony Anderson’s
character advocates for the tradition to be recognized as a national holiday. While that lofty
goal has not yet happened, shortly after the episode aired, “Juneteenth” appeared as a holiday
in the iPhone calendar. Coincidence or not, I think all of our ancestors would be proud of this
small step toward healing.

1. I know you weren’t thinking that. But I lied to set up my joke; work with the kid.
2. Fine, it’s watermelon.

Peter Saji is a co-executive producer and writer for the television show Black-ish.

Peter Saji