Author Note: Studying and writing about the book of Exodus has provided countless opportunities to consider how God reveals himself to his people. God offers revelation to the Israelites by establishing spiritual rhythms and practices for rest and celebration. Annual celebrations provide occasions to remember and reflect on the redemption and repair that God offers those he has chosen and desires to live in freedom. Studying the celebrations in the Torah allowed me to reflect on a new American national holiday, Juneteenth. The following excerpt from the forthcoming Journey to Freedom: Discovering the God of Deliverance, An Exodus Bible Study speaks to the complex nature of Juneteenth, a joyous celebration of Black freedom in the midst of ongoing systemic injustice.
The Dawn of a New Federal Holiday
On June 15, 2021, the United States Senate unanimously passed a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act passed the House, and President Joseph Biden signed it into law on June 17, 2021.
The bill signing was met with mixed emotions for several reasons. Some American citizens had never heard of the Juneteenth celebration, and therefore the action had no real significance and caused more questions than excitement. Other Americans continually expressed concern for the modern American government’s inability to work together on any bipartisan effort to make positive changes on behalf of American workers and their families amid a global pandemic, political unrest, economic uncertainty, and racial injustice.
On Not Getting What We Asked For
Many Black people were especially concerned and confused because, after years of increased racism and violence against Black bodies by the state, including the 2020 summer of global racial reckoning after George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a federal holiday was not the act of justice requested. For centuries, Black people have asked America to remove all forms of slavery, not double down on slavery by any other name:
- Black people have asked for equal access and opportunities to thrive (e.g., housing, education, equitable pay, health care, nutritious foods, voting rights).
- Black people have asked for reparations and for America to reconsider the ways that policing happens and for social services to be generously provided in traumatized Black communities.
Before it was a national holiday, Juneteenth (a combination of June and nineteenth, because that’s what Black people do) was a celebration honoring the day, June 19, 1865, that slaves in Galveston Bay, Texas, finally received news nearly two and a half years later that the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 had taken effect. For some Black people, this day has always been an annual celebration, but for others it is new. You need to understand this about Black people: We celebrate “Black joy” in other ways. We know how to rejoice in our mourning, so we were going to do that anyway. You need to understand this about Black people: We celebrate 'Black joy' in other ways. We know how to rejoice in our mourning, so we were going to do that anyway. Click To Tweet
Making Juneteenth Matter for Good
Much like abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who powerfully raised the question on July 4, 1852, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” I suspect that Juneteenth should not be celebrated or reflected upon by all American citizens in the same way. I pray that it does not become another day off for mindless shopping where companies profit from Black caricatures or where Black folks indulge in gluttonous activity. I suspect that Juneteenth should not be celebrated or reflected upon by all American citizens in the same way. Click To Tweet
I do hope that every American will take the opportunity to focus on our history, tell it to our children, support Black-owned businesses, elevate Black voices, and invest in the life and legacy of Black children and churches, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and the health and sustainability of Black communities.
I hope that Black people take the opportunity to rest, care for their own souls and bodies, tell stories about our liberation journey, and celebrate with those who love and affirm us.
I also love the hopeful approach that Pastor Duke Kwon, coauthor of the book Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, posted on his social media account: “What if the period between June 19 & July 4 were to become an annual 16-day season of national remembrance, lament, and renewal—an honest accounting of the unfulfilled promise of liberty/equality, call to repentance, and recommitment to spur our nation to live up to its ideals.” “What if the period between June 19 & July 4 were to become an annual 16-day season of national remembrance, lament, and renewal—an honest accounting of the unfulfilled promise of liberty/equality.” Duke Kwon Click To Tweet
I would add: What if Black people did not bear the burden of that work? What if the people who have benefited the most from generations of Black enslavement bore the responsibility to prepare for such a remembrance prayerfully and thoughtfully? What healing might this preparation, annual truth-telling, spiritual practices, and services do for their own souls and for the healing of our nation? I would love to see this vision become a practice across our country, but if not, we can intentionally practice this discipline of celebration within our own communities. I hope that Black people take the opportunity to rest, care for their own souls and bodies, tell stories about our liberation journey, and celebrate with those who love and affirm us. Click To Tweet
Natasha Sistrunk Robinson is president of T3 Leadership Solutions, Inc. and visionary founder of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Leadership LINKS, Inc.A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, she is a sought-after international speaker, leadership coach, and consultant with more than 20 years of leadership experience in the military, federal government, academic, and nonprofit sectors. Natasha is the author of several books, including the forthcoming Voices of Lament and Journey to Freedom Exodus Bible study, A Sojourner’s Truth, Hope for Us: Knowing God through the Nicene Creed Bible study, and Mentor for Life. She hosts A Sojourner’s Truth podcast.
 Duke Kwon, “What if the period between June 19 & July 4 were to become an annual 16-day season of national remembrance,” Twitter, June 17, 2021. https://twitter.com/dukekwondc/status/1405697967672250369