Hilton Als wrote, “People are quick to make monuments of anything they live long enough to control.” I can’t help but think this is the impetus behind the rush to canonize Juneteenth as a national holiday. I worry the lessons of Juneteenth will become lost because we have seen the promising visions of Black freedom-dreaming co-opted before.
Think of Martin Luther King Jr., a man who spoke with such directness and nuance of America’s failings that he was hated by a majority of white people when he was alive, but who, in 2021, is treated as a saintly relic used by those in power to tell those who are suffering to stop naming the sources of their pain and say soft things, as Dr. King did. Even as uncompromising a presence as Malcolm X has gotten this treatment, to the extent that, in the early ’90s, Dan Quayle, George H.W. Bush’s vice president, claimed him as an inspiration.
In my most cynical moments, I think that the rush to embrace Juneteenth is about undermining Black people who are alive now of the right to protest. “Why are they still going on about voting rights and police violence and clean air and health care and schools,” a white politician can say to his non-Black constituents next year, “when we gave them a day off?”
And in the long run, I see something even more sinister. The myth of the American Empire, as a city upon a hill or a site of moral clarity or justice, is dying, and those in power know it. They know that the old stories America told itself about itself no longer ring true to most of us, if they ever rang true at all. So they mine those communities they’ve excluded, in search of that very rare mineral, authenticity.
But mostly, I am sad because when a holiday becomes co-opted like this, those who can gain a sense of self and solidarity from celebrating it often lose it. The agency that comes from deciding your own traditions — a cold water toast, a watch night — becomes lost to a corporate calendar and a megastore selling you a Juneteenth cookout checklist. You can lose sight of the possibility that exists in marginalized histories, which is the space to imagine another, better world.
Kaitlyn Greenidge, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the novel “Libertie” and the features director at Harper’s Bazaar.
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