For a Joyous Juneteenth

Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet!

For a Joyous Juneteenth

The ruling class loves Juneteenth. Or rather, they love something called “Juneteenth” that bears zero resemblance to Juneteenth.

Jeff Bezos has cancelled all his meetings for the day, and while it’s not a company holiday, he’s asked his employees to do the same (without, of course, just giving them the day off). He requests that they use that time to “reflect, learn, and support each other,” and has provided them with a convenient company-approved “range of online learning opportunities.”

Google too has asked its employees to cancel unnecessary meetings and “use this day to create space for learning and reflection.” Target recommends using “this time to serve in your communities, commit to inclusion and advocacy, or simply educate yourself on a topic you may not know much about”—a directive ostensibly intended for the white-collar staff at its headquarters, which will be closed for the day, while its stores remain open.

The big media giants have been a little more generous in offering a paid day off for Juneteenth, though a public spreadsheet making the rounds suggests this may not be a permanent fixture, with The Washington Post, The New York Times and Vox all committing to it for 2020 only. Quartz pulled a sly move by just switching it out with Columbus Day, a clever way to look woke without actually losing any money. Many media employees were quick to Tweet how grateful they were to their employers for such a progressive corporate environment.

The academy has also embraced the holiday. Recently, the University of Pennsylvania made an announcement:

We want to provide the intellectual space to pause for critical reflection and honest (in many instances painfully so) conversations. We hope these conversations include how we can work together to accelerate progress at Penn, in our community, and in our country. On this year’s Juneteenth, which is this Friday June 19th, we ask members of the Penn community to take the day off of their regular work as an opportunity to contemplate the historical significance of Juneteenth and how we can learn from our past to chart a more equitable path forward. For those parts of our work that cannot pause for the day, supervisors will work directly with staff to ensure that essential, life-preserving activities continue. All other Penn faculty and staff are encouraged to pause their work for the day to remember the meaning of this important holiday.

We hope you will treat this day as an opportunity to learn from one another, an opportunity not to be missed. Penn is well positioned to bring together our collective resources to moving our University, our neighborhood, and our country closer to the inclusive university, community and society in which we all can aspire to live, learn and work.

Later in the day, a friend who works for the university received an urgent email announcing Penn’s $91 million dollar deficit. They were doing the best they could to find new “ways to reduce discretionary spending,” assuring employees that they “want to exhaust those possibilities prior to consideration of reductions to our workforce.” Hey, every penny counts.

However, the pernicious manipulation of ritual and history into a PR stunt or moral alibi is not my only gripe with the corporate and academic calls to Juneteenth. It’s also that they’re not actually talking about Juneteenth at all, but some solemn day of prayer, reflection and education. Recall that this is a holiday that has also been called Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, and Cel-Liberation Day. (Okay, the last one doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but the word Jubilee should give you some sense of the intended tone of the holiday.)

If you have ever been to a Juneteenth event, you know that celebration is already the intended spirit—a day of parades and street fairs with music, dancing, food and fellowship. Any attempt to “rebrand” it as a day of funereal grief, austere meditation, penitent education, or remorseful atonement is not only embarrassingly lame, it’s presumptuous revisionism, and totally oblivious to the history and traditions of one of the rare American holidays that is secular, politically virtuous, and actually fun.

The Berkeley Juneteenth Festival in 2018. Photo: Nancy Rubin

If you have not been to a Juneteenth celebration, maybe check out YouTube and then consider the possibilities of “codifying the cookout”; of a national holiday glorifying a world-historic triumph of human liberation. Consider the entire country, grill-pilled to celebrate the abolition of slavery as one of the great victories of mankind.

Early in the day of course, there will be the parades. On streets lined with food stands, market booths and the like, happy crowds will cheer for the procession of floats, musicians, dancers, trade union delegations, church groups, local clubs, and beloved community members. High school bands will be there, the flutists thrilled to finally take center stage with the piccolo for a Union army marching song. Small children will tower even higher on their parents’ shoulders, wearing the little construction paper stove-pipe hats they made during their last week of school before summer break. That week will be known to them as “Juneteenth Week”, and kids will count down the days.

Earlier in the school year (because god knows kids never learn anything in the last week of school), they will have studied the origins of American slavery, the abolition movement, the Civil War, Reconstruction and more, developing their understanding of American and world history. Their education will include age-appropriate activities, crafts, and lesson plans developed from Civil War historians—Foner for Freshman, James Oakes for Junior High, Karp for the Kiddies. This program will of course have replaced the shameful neoliberal revisionism of the 1619 Project. Someday, every child in America will have participated in a guided group-reading and class discussion of Marx’s correspondence with Lincoln. I think 7th grade sounds appropriate.

And after the Juneteenth parades, there will be the parties. Though celebrations will vary, Juneteenth will be celebrated by all. The punk rockers will sing “John Brown’s Body” and play the entirety of Titus Andronicus’s “The Monitor” at top volume (because they want to celebrate, but in a way that reminds them they are still punk). Flag-waving military families will regard abolition as a point of patriotic pride, and play “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” (the United States Military Academy Band version, naturally).

The literary and theatrical types will stage readings of The Lyceum Address (because Gettysburg is frankly a little overrated), and the contrarian gadflys will annoy everyone by smugly pointing out that actually, Thanksgiving was the original Civil War holiday, and that it was not in fact a celebration of genocide, but merely the revival of an innocuous Puritan ritual that was practiced regularly, in celebration of anything from a good harvest to the birth of a baby. (They will, of course, be correct about this, but we’ll all be sick of hearing it every year.)

The traditional Juneteenth party will likely be the sort of boozy, multi-generational family affair where parents routinely remember they haven’t seen the kids for a while now, but quickly reassure themselves that they’re probably fine, and that it’s not even a big deal if they sneak some beer because they’re good kids, and “what the hell, it’s Juneteenth!” Like the 24-hour marathons of A Christmas Story during the holiday season, television networks will broadcast Glory for the whole day and night, and we will all catch glimpses of it on largely ignored TVs when we go inside for more hotdog buns, or just to relax in the air conditioning. Armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Civil War, amateur historian Civil War Dads will stand around grills and laugh, talking endless shit on “that dumb bastard Ken Burns.”

There will be weaving, discordant sing-alongs of every single verse of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Everyone will agree it should be the national anthem (“The Star-Spangled Banner is a shit song that no one can sing!”), then passionately disagree about which versions are the best (Odetta, The Soviet Red Army Choir, Tammy Wynette) and which are shit (Anita Bryant, almost anything from a children’s chorus). When we all get to the line “Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,” your grandmother will nearly fall out of her chair to shout it louder than anyone (she’s been in the bourbon).

“I’m going to be so hungover tomorrow,” someone will laugh.

“Can I have everybody’s attention? Since everyone we love is here, we might as well tell you the good news…” someone will say, and an excited hush will fall over the celebrants.

There will be family drama and fights, wedding proposals and baby announcements. We will celebrate with strangers, with the people we’ve known our entire lives, and with the people who will become friends, or even family.

“This is the best Juneteenth yet,” people will say.

“My favorite holiday, hands down,” people will say.

When Juneteenth is declared a national holiday, it will not be some insultingly sanctimonious HR-mediated scam or public relations stunt. Workers don’t need bosses to educate them or compel them to mourn. They need a day off work for a Jubilee! Thankfully, I doubt the abilities of the ruling class and elite institutions to turn a day of partying into a day of prayer, mostly because I have faith in mankind’s universal instinct for joy. The workers of America will adopt Juneteenth as it was intended—a celebratory holiday, one that will inevitably include all the rituals and practices at which Americans excel: being loud, getting drunk, overeating, and recreational explosives.

But still, some of those Painfully Protestant liberals will use Juneteenth to persist in their self-indulgent moping, tragically unable to immerse themselves in celebration as a means of counteracting the terribly lonely, insecure atomization of our era. They will spend their Juneteenth in reflection, mourning and prayer, perhaps over some clear liquor and a virtuous book of their choosing. They will have “painful conversations,” or wash feet, or watch some rainbow-stoled Episcopalian bishop’s sermon about how we’re all god’s children. Poor miserable bastards. I’ll pray for them.

The rest of us, though? The rest of us will be celebrating. The unspoken agreement of our coexistence with the ideologically joyless will be to tolerate their stifling piety, so long as they tolerate our glorious joy.

Glory, glory, hallelujah.

Amber A’Lee Frost is a writer and podcaster who has yet to escape Brooklyn, New York.