Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is the drink.
Juneteenth is now a federal holiday in the USA. It’s nationwide! It’s been celebrated by Black people since 1866, a year after the event that instigated it happened, when, on June 19, 1865, Union Army general Gordon Granger came to Galveston, Texas to announce and enforce the Emancipation Proclamation of three years earlier. Texas was the last Confederate state to still maintain slavery.
So, Juneteenth doesn’t just celebrate the official end of legal chattel slavery of human beings in the United States, it also celebrates when the Union Army came and forced Texas to stop enslaving Black people. It doesn’t just celebrate that the government announced there was to be an official legal change in the status of Black human beings: it commemorates the sad truth that some people are so attached to their domination over other people’s bodies, labor, and choices that they have to be forced at gunpoint to even pretend to acknowledge their personhood.
And this is the first year it’s gone national! Official! Legit!
What does one do on Juneteenth? Celebrate Black culture in all its multifaceted magnificence, that’s what! Sing, dance, buy shea butter products and green yellow and black T-shirts, eat soul food and drink strawberry soda. Educate yourself about Black history. Pay attention to Black political and artistic voices. Watch “Small Axe,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” and reruns of “Tremé” and “Watchmen.”
I was very excited to celebrate Juneteenth this year. Finally, a national holiday I could get behind. But maybe it was because President Simple Joe Malarkey only declared it a couple days before the holiday, so it was too short notice, or maybe I just didn’t plan the day right. I don’t want to call out anyone by name, but I was very disappointed. I didn’t get invited to a single cookout. There’s one I probably could’ve invited myself to, and there was the two-day street bash in Leimert Park, but, you know, a fellow likes to be asked.
It is true that Juneteenth has been celebrated for a hundred fifty-five years, and never once in all that time have I been invited to a bash, cookout, sock hop, soiree, or to-do. So why should I expect to be invited to one now, just because some old white dude signed a piece of paper?
I don’t remember Black people demanding that Juneteenth be made a national holiday, anyway. So it’s not like my attitude can be, “Hey, you wanted this. It’s my holiday too, now! Just like everybody’s Irish on St. Paddy’s Day, everybody’s young, gifted, and Black on Juneteenth!”
An essay titled, “Is Juneteenth for Everybody?” was published by The Crunk Feminist Collective, and republished in MS. Written by feminist of color scholar and activist Brittney Cooper, it’s her personal ruminations on the meaning of the holiday, and her reaction to its being embraced by white people, and by Black people who hadn’t previously known about, until last year when the protests against police carte blanche to murder Black people were conspicuously in the public eye.
One paragraph from the essay seems particularly salient to me:
“The only thing that Juneteenth can and should mean to white people in 2021 is an opportunity to reckon with the 156-year history and very present threat of white denialism. A significant swath of white people simply refuse to acknowledge that they lost on November 3 ... They have in great defiance of the truth, decided that if they just don’t concede, they can hold the nation hostage to their vision of a world of Black and Brown subjugation and white dominance.”
She’s referring not just to today’s white denialism, but the white denialism of Reconstruction, when the South forced their denial of defeat in the Civil War on their Black populations through terrorism and Jim Crow, and white denialism as a continuous toxic vein throughout our national history.
We all have our “shoulds,” but the instant someone tells me what something “should” mean to me, or what I “should” do, or how I “should” behave, I instantly become annoyed, aggrieved, and resistant. That’s part of my heritage as a spiritual descendant of those who’ve always resisted persecution and analyzed its causes in order to rebel against them, in every age. That’s what I think Black people, white people, queer people, poor people, and all people should do. That’s my big should, and it’s why capitalism is at the top of my list of wrongs to be righted.
But in the end I can’t say I really have any disagreement with Cooper’s analysis, and her prescription didn’t hurt my prickly, fragile feelings hardly at all. I agree that Juneteenth is one among many opportunities for me to reckon with the history and threat of white denialism.
But I also want food. Like it or not, it’s a national holiday now, and if it’s not a fast, it’s a feast. So Juneteenth morning at about eight am I woke up and drove down to the corner of Vernon and San Pedro, a few blocks east of the 110, to where I used to patronize a particularly marvelous carnitas truck before Covid. I just wanted to make sure they were still there, and they were, a friend and I could go there the next day, which we were planning to do. But I happened to score a very rare parking space just a few yards from the truck, so I figured I’d have one taco.
2 bucks for the best carnitas taco, with the meat and skin so beautifully chopped up together. Best money I ever spent on food. By the time I was finished it was about 9:30 am, and I thought I might drop by Phillip’s BBQ, which was about 7 minutes away. Phillip’s is excellent BBQ, and surely there would be something special going on for Juneteenth. I saw on Google Maps that it opened at 11. I could kill an hour or so.
I drove around the Leimert Park neighborhood, where there was scheduled to be a big thing for the next couple days, but that didn’t start till noon, and folks were barely even beginning to set up. Then I went and parked across the street from Phillip’s, and listened to some This Is Hell while biding my time... until I got out and saw their special Juneteenth hours had them opening an hour later than usual. And they were warning of crowds and the necessity of pre-ordering. And Chef Marilyn’s, Queen of Downhome Southern Goodies, down the block, was similarly delayed and similarly warning. And I had to pee.
I bought a bottle of Fanta strawberry at a gas station, hoping in exchange to bargain for the use of their bathroom. No dice. So, I peed behind the gas station.
I got antsy and went home. Too much waiting is not celebrating. Later in the day I made myself some country ribs and chicken to go with my red soda. Not a big fan of BBQ brisket. I’ve rarely had it done right, and it’s not a cheap cut of meat.
And then I watched an episode or two of the TV adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. And then I wrote this.
And that could be the way I’ll do Juneteenth from now on. But another tradition I have is to try to ingratiate myself in order to wangle invites to holiday meals. Rosh Hashanah, Passover, Christmas, Thanksgiving, or any old parking meter holiday barbecue, that’s my holiday ritual. I’m sure my Black friends who celebrate have been doing so with their extended families for years and years, and I know I’m not part of those families or those traditions. And maybe they’re afraid I’ll say something foolish, like, “Y’know what Juneteenth needs? A mascot. Kid friendly. Like, maybe, Hong Kong Phooey, the cartoon martial arts expert dog janitor voiced by Scatman Crothers. Or Urkel! Everybody loves Urkel!” Hey, I promise not to do that, nor anything of the sort.
My sincere condolences that your holiday has been commandeered by the United States of America. It’s an empire! That’s just how they do things. They did it to your bodies, your music, and your food. I mean, you really should be used to it.
And, listen, commemorating the refusal to relinquish or even acknowledge legal domination over other people’s bodies, choices, and labor until forced at gunpoint – that’s a holiday we’ve needed forever. Let’s make it American as apple pie!
So, get ready for next year. Guess who’s coming to dinner? This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!