No celebrating Juneteenth holiday

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By Julianne Malveaux

Guest Columnist

High props go to 94-year-old Opal Lee, the Texas woman determined to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

Thanks to her efforts and those of others like U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, the 11th national holiday, and the first since Martin Luther King’s birthday was made a holiday.

For federal employees, it means a paid day off work. Some private employers will also make Juneteenth a paid day off. I chuckle at the irony of klan members getting a paid day off work to commemorate Juneteenth. Perhaps that will help them with the concept that the South lost the Civil War.

While I am buoyed by the new holiday, I’m not jumping for joy nor dancing in the street. The Senate passed the holiday legislation unanimously.

How come they can’t do the same for the George Floyd bill or voting rights. While the Juneteenth holiday is impactful, the ease with which it got Senate passage ought to give us all pause. It is easier to support a holiday than to support the principle of democracy, which is allegedly at the foundation of our democracy. It is easier to support a holiday than to abolish the use of the chokehold. It is easier to support a holiday than to support SB 40, the Senate’s reparations bill.

Juneteenth reminds me of justice and equality denied. Those Galveston enslaved people didn’t find out they were free until nearly two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Their exploiters were the beneficiaries of thousands of hours of free labor. They intended to game the system and exploit Black people for as long as they could.

Fast forward. The exploiters are still gaming the system with prison labor, substandard wages, and other forms of economic injustice. It will take something more than a holiday to right those wrongs.

President Joe Biden gets credit for signing this legislation, just as he gets credit for going to Tulsa at the 100th commemoration of the destruction of Black Wall Street. While both these things are primarily symbolic, these are symbolic gestures that he did not have to make.

Juneteenth represents more than symbolic progress, though. While most of white America had never heard of Juneteenth, now they have. They now have the opportunity to reflect on our nation’s history in ways they haven’t reflected on it before. Annually, there will be a flurry of newspaper articles and television specials focusing on Juneteenth.

The ignorant can change the channel or flip the pages of their newspapers, but commemorating Juneteenth begins the process of fully embracing our flawed history.

So while I won’t jump, I’ll pause for a minute to thank the Juneteenth warriors who made this holiday happen. And I’ll ask President Biden not to rest on his laurels.

We need the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to be passed yesterday, and by whatever means necessary. Melvin van Peebles wrote a play in the 1970s, “Ain’t Supposed to Die A Natural Death.” One of the lines that stuck with me through these many years is from a woman folks assume is suicidal because she is standing on a ledge. She says, “I ain’t leaping. I’m just learning.”

That’s how I feel about the Juneteenth holiday, not leaping for joy but learning in gratitude and progress.

While the Juneteenth holiday is impactful, the ease with which it got Senate passage ought to give us all pause.

Julianne Malveaux is an economist and author. She is also the new dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at Cal State Los Angeles.

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