Juneteenth: Can we celebrate our way to racial justice?

June 19th, 2012 Posted in Holiday
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Kate Vickery
Legislative Intern

I grew up in a small town in rural Michigan where Juneteenth was definitely not part of the summer celebrations. The historical impact of the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865 was not deeply felt in my lily-white community, where the annual tractor parade often featured high school students driving heavy farming equipment bedecked with confederate flags.

In 2005, Michigan became the 18th state to officially declare the Juneteenth holiday but Juneteenth has never been celebrated in my hometown.

The context for Juneteenth has changed for me now that I live in Texas, where Juneteenth was born.  Long celebrated in the Lone Star State, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in 1980 thanks to state Representative Al Edwards. Since then, the holiday has been celebrated in more and more communities, from Galveston to San Antonio, from Nacogdoches to El Paso.

This year, Houston Mayor, Annise Parker, announced plans to begin renovations on the historic Emancipation Park in order to create a “magnet for history tourism and for neighboring private development.” At the state capitol, efforts to reboot an African American Texan memorial sculpture after a Juneteenth sculpture was scrapped under a cloud of controversy are underway.

Juneteenth should certainly be a celebration to honor the end of slavery in the United States. It should also be a reminder of how far we have to go to attain racial justice and equality.

Eric Tang, assistant professor of African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin, points to Austin as a place that needs to take a serious look at how it is serving its African American community.  Infant mortality, HIV diagnoses, and the number of children removed from their families by child welfare agencies is significantly higher for African Americans in Austin than in other parts of the country. Even as the wealth gap between blacks and whites in Austin reaches a 30-year high, community resources like the Northeast Community Care Center are being shut down.

Whether we’re in a small town in rural Michigan, or Austin, a city that claims superlatives like “healthiest,” “most liberal,” “best places to raise kids” and “most sustainable,” our commitment to racial justice needs to continue well after the last Juneteenth celebrations come to a close this year.

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