What Juneteenth Means to Me: How the celebration of this holiday can help our country heal

Abra Gist
June 15, 2023

What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is a federal holiday in the United States commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. Celebrated on the anniversary of the order issued by Major General Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865, proclaiming freedom for enslaved people in Texas - deriving its name from combining "June" and "nineteenth".  Although the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed two years earlier, slaves as far south as Galveston, Texas did not know they were freed and were forced to work. 

Mrs. Jasmine Muse, MSC, Proximity Learning Science Teacher

I had some time to discuss the importance of commemorating this recently federally recognized holiday with Proximity’s own Mrs. Jasmine Muse. We had an amazing conversation about creating more opportunities for dialogue around not only the importance of Juneteenth but also how we can create more empathy, education, and understanding about racial justice, historical accuracy, and equality. 

What does Juneteenth mean to you, not just as an educator but also personally? 

I grew up in Southeast Texas, Beaumont to be specific. It’s actually about an hour away from Galveston, which is the historic site of Juneteenth. So, to me, Juneteenth has always been a commemorative day that we’ve observed and celebrated within my community. It wasn’t until probably my teenage to collegiate years that I realized it was not a nationwide or well-known holiday.

I learned about Juneteenth through my church and within my own community because as it happens in June, it was not actually in the school curriculum. I think because it’s a holiday in the summertime, it doesn’t get as much recognition as it should. 

So, it was in the church that we actually learned about the holiday and the true history of Juneteenth. That was very important because sometimes the curriculum can be very biased by the perspective of those who write it versus those who it impacted and the actual historical events that have happened around it. 

I’m very glad that now we live in a society where history is being told by those communities who have lived through it. Or, we have been able to celebrate history based on a lot more of the 360 views of history versus a dominant narrative that can be kind of biased. 

How can the observance of Juneteenth as a federally recognized holiday contribute to the understanding, empathy, and dialogue across different communities? And, how does Juneteenth connect to broader conversations about racial justice and equality in contemporary society? 

I think first off the importance of understanding and empathy would be to actually bridge the gap between those within the community that celebrate it. So, that connection and celebration could be by going and looking for a local Juneteenth festival or parade because there are always little tokens of history there. Presence and observance is a starting point.

Also, there are a lot of really great books that talk about the discovery of those enslaved people finding out that they were actually freed because they didn’t know (for almost three years). So, I would say reading some of those books, or looking at old historical documents like newspapers and teaching the younger generation about it is so important. It can be as simple as just passing on that knowledge to your kids, nieces, nephews, and grandkids and having that dialogue. 

Discussing some of the histories of our country and where we were and what we are doing now to actually progress and get better is important. I know there are some parts of our history that are not the best, however, I think that if we have a conversation about what we did wrong, it can help us talk about bridging those gaps and communicating with each other as humans. 

We are all human, and we all go through some of the same things in life through our cultures and families. And I guess I don’t see why we can’t use Juneteenth to openly discuss those issues and see what we can do as a society to value our differences, experiences, and treat each other better. 

You know, kids not only pay attention to what we say but they pay attention to our actions. So actually being an example and taking a look at ourselves in the mirror and consistently asking ourselves “Is this the best way to handle a sensitive or difficult situation” is so important. Our younger generation is looking to us on how to respond and our actions will go a lot further than our conversations. 

Juneteenth celebrations might include things like rodeos, street fairs, cookouts, family reunions, historical reenactments, and Miss Juneteenth contests. How has the celebration and recognition of Juneteenth grown or changed over time? 

So I know that the MLK holiday gets a lot of recognition because it was federally recognized before Juneteenth. Dr. Martin Luther King was obviously a pivotal leader in the civil rights movement and observance of MLK day in the community has always been a great day of recognition. However, for someone like me who grew up with Juneteenth, I didn’t necessarily see a huge difference in how those holidays were celebrated. 

But, now that I’m older and have moved away and lived in Atlanta, I did notice that MLK day is huge here, whereas the observance of Juneteenth is not as well known or understood - even if it is celebrated.  So the observance and events of Juneteenth are large but there’s maybe not as much knowledge about what it is than what I was used to growing up in Texas. I have a lot of neighbors and friends, African American friends as well who don’t really know what the day celebrates or what it’s about. So I think there is a lot of knowledge that still needs to be shared and we have a ways to go in helping the larger community recognize its importance. 

Because for someone like me a question like this might be a little biased from my perspective because of where I grew up and how celebrated the Juneteenth holiday was. I do think while there is now a larger observance of Juneteenth, I think there are still many people who just aren’t as knowledgeable about the history and that’s something that I think will take some time to catch up with in the observance and recognition of this important holiday. I am so happy to see the holiday evolve and gain recognition now that it’s finally observed as a federal holiday. 

For example, my kids’ preschool is closed and so that will be a day that we set aside some time and do some lessons and crafts based on the colors and what they represent for this holiday. 

We also cook special foods. For example, in our culture, we will have some sort of red drink (like strawberry soda or Big Red) or dessert, something like a red velvet cake or watermelon might be served, and that symbolizes all of the blood shed by the enslaved men and women and children at the time. I actually have to ask my parents to bring us Big Red because it’s actually not sold here in Atlanta. 

We usually have black-eyed peas which represent wealth, prosperity, and growth in the community. I also usually always make some kind of sweet potato dish like a side or pie. That was a representation of the lack of access to food that slaves had, so they had to make do with what they had on hand. Many would harvest sweet potatoes and freeze them in the winter so that this could be a quick, easily available meal to eat. BBQ Chicken might be an entree we share.

And then we’ll enjoy a meal together and discuss how this was the celebration they had when the news finally got to Galveston and how the slaves found out they were free because for so long they didn’t know. It was really a Jubilee because they were so excited because no one had told them and that was the day that they learned about their freedom. And that word is perfect because to me it was always communicated that this was a Jubilee day which conveys glee or happiness and celebration. And they were called to spread this joyful news as they went throughout the town telling everyone, “Hey we’re free, we’re free” and that’s a sign of a Jubilee.

Are there any other symbols or celebrations that are used to commemorate the holiday? 

I think it’s typically parades, concerts, and BBQ. Those are the ones I’m most familiar with and saw growing up. Sometimes there were plays usually affiliated with the church or if someone was an educator in say, summer school. 

I come from a long line of educators, and I would volunteer at the school in the summer. Together we’d all put together a Juneteenth play for the students. It was great because they would actually talk about what it was and go through the timeline of events and consider what happened after the Emancipation Proclamation, Juneteenth, and next steps towards equality even up until now. We discuss how we as a people get to where we need to go. So, I would say those school plays, concerts, festivals, and community cookouts were just a great way to celebrate and also educate not only our own community but also others about the significance of Juneteenth. 

Are there any other things you’d like to share or discuss about Juneteenth or Black History in general? 

I just wanna say thank you to you and Proximity for putting this interview and blog together. It’s just so very important as a diverse community that we discuss our differences and we’re able to discuss some of our heritage. You know, I’m very thankful that I can work for a company that gives me a safe space to talk about my heritage and some of these celebrations that I am happy to share. 

I think that’s very important because not only am I happy to share, but I can imagine the hundreds and even thousands of readers that will see this. I hope that they will take maybe a few words or insights from this, and it will become something that they go on to share with their families. 

It’s my hope that this article will touch the lives of a lot of others and hopefully impart some knowledge. And I hope through this there is a lesson - that we can all bring together an even bigger symbol of unity and especially empathy for others. 

We talk about diversity a lot in the workplace and in the classroom and then life in general. I’m just so glad that we are talking and having a conversation that allows us to talk about our differences so that we can come together on things that we share in common and grow and learn together. So yeah, I’m very grateful that Proximity has provided a safe space to me - and that’s so important because I feel seen and know that I can share and grow with others. 

For more information about Juneteenth and commemorative celebrations check your communities’ local listings.

about the author
Abra Gist

Abra Gist is a writer and educator in Austin, Texas with over a decade of experience in the education sector. She earned her Bachelor's Degree in English at The University of Texas. She is currently an MFA Creative Writing Candidate at Texas State University. She loves exploring nature, practicing and teaching yoga, and sharing her industry knowledge for Proximity Learning.

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