By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee, Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget these. – James Weldon Johnson
The quest to make Juneteenth a national holiday gained steam with the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of police in 2020. President Joe Biden finally signed federal legislation to commemorate the holiday in 2021.
However, Juneteenth, one of the oldest celebrations of the abolition of slavery in the world, has yet to mainstream its values of diversity, inclusion and racial equity.
Traveling a “stony road” of cultural appropriation and mischaracterization of critical race theory (CRT), Juneteenth toils to gain acknowledgment of the Black community’s significant contributions to America’s democracy.
I spoke with the University of Toledo’s Angela Siner about the importance of commemorating Juneteenth and its pivotal place within the American narrative.
Angela M. Siner, M.A., is the director of The University of Toledo Africana Studies Program and director of the Anthropology Program in the Sociology and Anthropology Department. Africana Studies seeks to promote greater understanding and improved socio-economic life in the black community.
Here is our discussion:
Perryman: What does Juneteenth mean for black individuals and families?
Siner: Juneteenth means freedom, celebration, and community uplift and development. I say it means freedom because June 19, 1865, effectively ended slavery. Still, officially it didn’t end until December 6, 1865, with the passage of the ratification of the 13th Amendment. So, Juneteenth is connected to the freedom of all people of African descent in the US, so I say freedom in that respect.
The other is community development because when our ancestors attended the early Juneteenth celebrations, they were there for the celebration, parades, music, and food. However, eventually, they were also there for the information, uplift, and empowerment of the community and to pass on information to the community.
Perryman: Since President Biden signed it into law as a federal holiday, what does Juneteenth mean for everyone, particularly those not of African descent? Also, what does Juneteenth mean for employers?
Siner: Americans view holidays, in my estimation, in two ways. One is celebratory, so it’s a day off and time to relax and be with family and fellowship. The other is commercialization, where they spend a lot of money. We’re a Christian nation, and even Christmas has become very commercialized, so much so that individuals say we forgot the ‘reason for the season.’
So I think, on the one hand, that Juneteenth will have to be a holiday driven by African Americans in the same way that we are pushing MLK Day. So we commemorate MLK as a day, not a day off, but a day on to participate in the community, to do things for other people.
In the same vein as Dr. King, Juneteenth should be a push for an understanding of our history and our culture to the larger society. So, yes, we have the celebrations, the parades, and all these things, but we also push the notion of culture and history.
Perryman: What would that look like from a practical standpoint?
Siner: From a practical standpoint, I think the King holiday is being driven that way. Individuals have prayer services in the morning and then go out to do things for the community. People are catching onto that. It’s not just a day to celebrate and not go to work, but it’s to do for others. It’s an opportunity to discuss our history, culture, and who we are as a people, and how this impacts the nation and those not of African American descent.
Perryman: What should our attitude be towards employers, particularly those who view Juneteenth as an obligatory day off?
Siner: Our attitude toward employers should be the same that I’ve mentioned. How can we assist them in understanding our history and our culture regarding their organization, not just for their employees to have a day off, but what does it mean? What is Juneteenth? How can your organization celebrate Juneteenth? Is it having your employees go out and do community service in Black and African American communities?
And again, I think we have to be the driving force in how we as African Americans celebrate Juneteenth and see it. So, I think we become the driving force behind employers’ attitudes and can impact employees and the nation as a whole.
Perryman: So let me go back to what you call the commercialization of Juneteenth. Let me call Walmart, their Juneteenth ice cream, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, and their watermelon salad, examples of cultural appropriation. How should we respond to cultural appropriation, and how should we identify similar situations that could be classified as cultural appropriation?
Siner: For me, that’s what we might call a gray area. Once Juneteenth became a national holiday, although it’s ours because it’s part of who we are, it’s now – for lack of a better term, in the public domain. Like President’s Day, Christmas, 4th of July, Labor Day, and Memorial Day. Other individuals in America now feel as though they have a stake in this, and they can make some money off it.
Again, how do we want Juneteenth to be represented? We know that appropriation will take place because, again, it’s a holiday. Some individuals see it as a means to make some money and big bucks because they know black people love spending money and will appropriate that. But, I think it’s incumbent upon us as a community in America to drive the theme and what we want this to be. So, I think we have to remain vigilant.
Perryman: That presents a dilemma for the community. We want to mainstream Juneteenth. We want everybody to be a part of it, but we also don’t want cultural appropriation. So, that’s an interesting dynamic.
Siner: That is a fascinating dynamic. And this is why I think that one of the primary missions of the holiday is education. We are educating society at large about the African American community and what it means to be Black in America. This holiday is one of the opportunities for us to do that.
Juneteenth provides a space to talk about things considered offensive, that somebody dares to have a watermelon salad. Not that watermelon is bad because historically, people of African-American lineage ate watermelon. After all, it was 92 percent water, being in the hot fields of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana. It was potable. They ate it because it hydrated them, but we also know it has been used to stereotype. Again, it can be a moment of education, not people just getting angry about why they have it, but a chance to explain. Again, education is the key, and this holiday is an opportunity to educate.
Perryman: How can the celebration of Juneteenth be inappropriate? When are we doing it wrong, or when are others doing it wrong?
Siner: Whenever we see it becoming a caricature of us. Again, the watermelon salad represents the inappropriateness of what it means to be Black in America. Not understanding that I think they’ve gone too far when it’s just about celebration. We’ve gone too far when it’s only about parades, music, dancing, and our food. That’s only part of Juneteenth, again, because empowerment was the other part of the celebration.
Perryman: Please talk more about the empowerment component.
Siner: I often think about the four African-American ministers in Houston who, in 1872, pooled their resources together and raised $1000. In today’s money, that’s about $24,000, and purchased 10 acres of land in 3rd Ward in Houston to establish the first location to host a Juneteenth celebration. But, unfortunately, none of the white land owners would allow them to use their property. So these men, seven years out of slavery, themselves former enslaved individuals, pool together $1000 and bought 10 acres of land. The park is called Emancipation Park, designated as the location to have the Juneteenth celebration.
I think about that in terms of empowerment. So that when individuals would go to these celebrations, they also talked to them about voting. They spoke to them about new farm equipment. When there were health issues, they talked about that, employment issues, all of these things.
So, when we just do the celebration part, which is a wonderful thing and we should celebrate, but the other part is that Juneteenth was also about empowering the African American community and understanding who we are.
Perryman: We have talked about the meaning of Juneteenth for African Americans and the American society at large. Yet, there remains a chasm between recent immigrants from the continent of Africa and American descendants of enslaved people (ADOS) or African Americans. African immigrants are filling up our most elite universities and getting ahead, while a large proportion of ADOS is falling behind and missing out on many things. What is your feeling on the effects of this lack of shared black experience?
Siner: One of the things we have tried to do at UT is get our African international and African American students to come together and talk to each other and work with each other on projects. So it’s a challenging thing.
I love my African brothers and sisters and African American brothers and sisters as well. But I think we have bought into the stereotypes of each other from other people. So, they see African Americans in many ways as some white Americans see us. For example, ‘you have all these opportunities and not taking advantage of them and just whining.’ Those kinds of issues they see portraying African Americans on television, and they buy into those things. I think we do the same with them, from my perspective. So, we’re at cross purposes with each other, and it causes a lot of issues and a lot of problems.
I think the other part is that white Americans, I believe, are more comfortable with our continental brothers and sisters than they are with us. They’re more comfortable with them because our continental brothers and sisters have colonialism as their baggage. But, still, they don’t have slavery in this country as their baggage.
Perryman: How is UT commemorating Juneteenth? Are you involved in any community celebrations?
Siner: Since Juneteenth is in the summertime and students are not always on campus, there is no celebration at UT this year other than a day off. However, I understand that the Toledo Library is doing a whole event. In addition, other groups in the city are doing some other events, which is excellent. For example, Robert Smith and the African American Legacy Project is hosting an event. The Community Solidarity Response Network (CSRN), will also have a commemoration at the Fredrick Douglass Community Center. And, the Toledo Museum of Art will host an event.
Perryman: I hope to see you on Juneteenth. Thank you for your time.
Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD, at firstname.lastname@example.org