For Black Texans, 2020 has been a year like no other. Faced with a pandemic that devastated our communities, followed by repeated deaths at the hands of police, we are exhausted. I just earned my master’s degree, and though I should be celebrating the prospect of new opportunities, the world feels increasingly daunting. The supposed freedom promised to Black Americans 155 years ago seems increasingly distant. And yet, with Juneteenth near—a holiday that commemorates the date when the final slaves in the United States were notified of their freedom—many of us are determined not only to celebrate, but to use the occasion as a launching pad for the continued fight for freedom.
When I was growing up in southwest Houston, my mom taught me about Juneteenth, and we celebrated every year. I remember sitting in the passenger seat of our green two-door pickup as she drove me to the Museum of Fine Arts on a scorching summer day. As she drove, my mom explained how though technically the slaves were freed on January 1, 1863 by the Emancipation Proclamation, the news didn’t make it to Texas until two and a half years later—on June 19, 1865. “That’s our true day of freedom,” she said.
I’m grateful that she took the time, because I didn’t learn much about Juneteenth in school. While my K–12 experiences were generally diverse, Black history lessons rarely reflected the full breadth of our past. We learned about slavery, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and not a whole lot else. But my mom, a third-grade teacher and thus natural at-home educator, made sure I knew how important Juneteenth was. The fact that the holiday remains relatively obscure, she said, is a lesson in how white people have historically manipulated our people to serve themselves.
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Through talks in our truck and a series of Juneteenth children’s books, Mom outlined a straightforward narrative that filled me with Texas pride: Standing in Galveston on June 19, Union Army major general Gordon Granger read General Order Number Three, effectively emancipating the last enslaved people in the United States, who should’ve been freed two years prior. The following year, African Americans in Houston and in Austin celebrated the fateful June day, beginning the annual tradition of Juneteenth. Uniquely Texan in its origins, the festivities featured food, dancing, and Southern Baptist traditions in public parks, allowing Black Americans to cool off from the sweltering Texas heat and celebrate with their families well into the night. Though Juneteenth began in Texas, it’s long been celebrated nationally among Black people, with small parades or gatherings in other major cities, like New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. It’s also sometimes called Freedom Day or Jubilee Day.
In my family, we marked the day by gathering in Houston’s Third Ward. Some years included small parades, while others were street festivals. Afterward, sometimes at restaurants, sometimes at an outdoor picnic, and sometimes at our church in the Hiram Clarke neighborhood, we indulged in beloved Black American dishes like Southern fried chicken, collard greens, and peach cobbler. My mom was intentional about not making her children feel hindered by racism; our dreams and hopes were not to be suppressed because of white supremacy. But she was direct about my and my siblings’ need to understand our Black history from an early age, and to recognize that the fight for freedom was far from over. Even as a child, I knew that Black folks deserved better. Juneteenth has always represented an annual opportunity to reflect on where we’d been and where we could go.
For many Black Texans, this year is the perfect opportunity to do just that. Only a few weeks after protesters rode into Houston’s Discovery Green on horseback to challenge racist policing and ongoing racism, Black Texas culture has perhaps never been so prominent. Juneteenth is receiving national attention for the first time. Social media influencers have created virtual events to mark the holiday, chefs and artists are hosting virtual happy hours and releasing new artwork, and Black professionals are mobilizing to take the day off and force America to reckon with its past. Employers such as Nike, Vox Media, Twitter, and yes, Texas Monthly, have also made June 19 a paid holiday for the first time.
To commemorate, Houston and Alief native Lambert Odeh, who now lives in New York City, isn’t just observing Juneteenth privately; he’s taking the day off work. Reflecting a greater movement among Black Americans to recognize Juneteenth in the same way that Independence Day is recognized, Lambert and others are declaring this their own national holiday.
“This year, I particularly think Juneteenth is important with everything that’s going on,” Odeh says. “Black people have been the backbone of this country for too long and we have also been conditioned to not celebrate our successes. Juneteenth can be our day outside of Black History Month to really celebrate how far we have come and recognize the current work that needs to be done.”
My sister and I, stuck at home in the pandemic lockdown, are taking the day off from work to observe Juneteenth together. Instead of answering emails and knocking out assignments, we’ll be cooking barbecued shrimp and catfish étouffée from Texas author Toni Tipton-Martin’s James Beard Award–winning Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking. We’ll also listen to our favorite Black musicians, watch a few of our favorite Black films, and financially support Black causes we believe in. For me, celebrating Juneteenth this way feels more intentional and meaningful than the holiday ever has before. It’s not just a day to pause and reflect on my culture; it’s also a political act of resistance.
Other black Texans are observing Juneteenth for the first time this year. Among them is Houstonian and fifth-generation Texan Shondrika Cook. “That day, when the Texas slaves were made free, we were all made free,” she says. “So I’ve just developed a greater appreciation for the holiday.”
Signing on to the effort to make Juneteenth a national holiday for all, Cook is already looking toward the future. She hopes that celebrations will eventually include large citywide festivals and national shows on the scale of those that happen on July 4. Importantly, she also hopes that Texas history becomes more inclusive of Black Texas history, and that days like Juneteenth won’t be lesser-known history, but a part of standard curricula in all Texas schools. This spring, the State Board of Education finally approved an African American studies course as a statewide elective. Cook counts herself among those who believe it should be a mandatory class.
“It’s so important that schools teach that history,” Cook says, “the history that’s shaped Fifth Ward and Fourth Ward’s Freedmen’s Town. All Texas students need to learn that culture, because it’s part of Texas culture. And if it’s part of Texas culture, it’s part of American culture.”
Reflecting on the tragedy of slavery and the uneasiness of this current moment in Black history, Cook hopes that Black folks are able not only to advocate for their rights, but also to bask in their excellence. “You know, of course everything got taken away in slavery,” she says. “But even through that, it didn’t take our minds, our ingenuity, and our innovation.”
Similar to Juneteenth, that innovation, according to Odeh, was birthed in Texas. And non-Black folks should remember that as they reflect this year. “Look, all the popping artists right now are Black and from Houston, Texas,” Odeh says. “Lizzo, Megan Thee Stallion, Travis Scott, and the Queen, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. We are great people. [Let’s] celebrate our accomplishments and know Texas would be nowhere without us. Black cowboys, Black barbecue, Black everything. When we put our spin on it, it’s now gold. It’s been that way since the beginning of time.”
Empowered by the recent protests against police brutality, largely sparked by the tragic death of Houstonian George Floyd, Cook and Odeh are eager to make celebrating the holiday a tradition, focusing on making Black pride and resilience core elements of that day. But rather than it existing solely as a celebratory day, they hope it’s also a call to action for all Americans about the ongoing fight for Black liberation.
“I hope people see that no matter how far they believe African Americans have gotten, there are still systems and laws in place that were designed to hold us back,” Odeh says.
To be Black in this nation is to constantly exist in abundant joy and adoration of your culture, alongside a deep frustration and restlessness with your country’s inability to rectify its oldest, most painful ills. In Texas, Black people suffer from health disparities at rates far higher than their white peers. Many Black children still lack access to equitable, quality schools. The income gap between Black and white Texans continues to grow, undoing decades of progress for Black communities. These wounds aren’t specific to Texas; they reflect national trends, demonstrating the nation’s need not only to mark Juneteenth, but to finally make good on its promise to ensure that all Americans can enjoy true liberty, freedom, and justice.
So this June 19, when I stay home from work to cook with my sister, I’ll be celebrating Black freedom and Black resilience, but I’ll also be continuing the fight for justice and equality. In both these missions, perhaps what is most essential is to be unapologetic in speaking up.
“So much of our culture has been stolen, hijacked, and repurposed in whiter packaging and sold for higher prices with little to no credit being given,” Odeh says. “Juneteenth is our day to make noise. Our day to claim what’s ours and be as proud as we want to be. And then we get to do it every day after, because why not?”