The Privilege to Celebrate Juneteenth

I try, as a rule, to pick my topics carefully. Not carefully in that I want to avoid controversial topics or trying to make sure that I don’t get into some kind of trouble from people who disagree with me (not many people read this anyway, so I still find this to be my safe space). But I pick topics carefully in that I generally only write about things if two criteria are satisfied: 1) I have thought deeply about the topic, and 2) the position I am taking on the topic has a solid fact-based foundation. To some (mostly over in Facebook land, where more people tend to read my stuff), it makes it seem like I’m full of facts and figures, but in reality, it’s easier to seem super knowledgable by limiting yourself to topics that you know something about. But here I am, breaking my “rule” that isn’t really a rule. I don’t feel on firm ground on this one, and what I’m going to write may have plenty of obvious flaws (in addition to the flaws from unedited writing and a lack of good proofreading that have always been part of Hitting Bregma). The good thing is that I don’t use being right or wrong as a category in my estimate of my value to the world. I’m not upset when I’m shown that I was wrong. Sometimes I’m confused how I didn’t see it myself, but I’m excited to have a reason to change my views, so breaking my “rule” doesn’t have much risk to it. So let’s talk about Juneteenth a little bit. Just a little bit…this introduction might have more to say than whatever comes after the fold.

Today is the formal celebration of Juneteenth. It’s now a federal holiday and it’s observed in my state. I work at a state university and we’re officially closed today in observance of Juneteenth. On the one hand, I think it’s great that Juneteenth is being observed. I think it’s a shame that some states are reluctant to observe it, and it’s still a bit confusing because different states are observing it on different days (this will likely be less of an issue when it doesn’t fall on a weekend).

The title of this post might make it seem like I think it’s a privilege that we honor freedom from slavery with a holiday. As if it’s not a simple basic thing that should happen. Like it’s not something that was earned or even deserved, but just something that’s been given as a gift. And I guess I mean it that way, but not for everybody. Again, this isn’t well thought out and I’m fine being shown the error of this thinking, that’s in its infancy, but I don’t feel like I deserve a day off from work to celebrate the liberation of race-based slavery if I’m not a member of the race that was enslaved. This feels especially true if I’m a member of the race that enacted the slavery in the first place. If you hold somebody underwater until they lose consciousness, you don’t get a reward for pulling them out of the water and performing CPR to save their life. Even though my family didn’t come to the United States until well after slavery had been abolished, I still don’t feel like I deserve any reward, like a day off. Much like it bugs me that people who are anti-union and anti-regulation (on businesses) get the day off for Labor Day, but this seems a bit more meaningful and important.

I don’t know the right answer here. Should this be a day off, only for Black Americans? Should it be a day off for Black Americans and states that fought against slavery in the Civil War? Does that mean that it’s not just OK that southern states aren’t recognizing Juneteenth, but it’s actually the right thing to do (perhaps for the wrong reasons)? But what about the Black Americans in those states? In my view, they absolutely deserve some recognition for the way people of their race (whether they were their ancestors or not) were treated. What’s the answer? I really don’t know.

Should we treat this like we do many other things celebrated by minority groups in America? Lots of schools and businesses are open on Yom Kippur, but Jews take the day off while people who aren’t Jewish treat it like a normal workday. There’s a common American Jewish tradition of getting Chinese food and seeing a movie on Christmas. I don’t know why the movies, but I suspect that eating Chinese food arose as the tradition because it was the only kind of restaurant reliably open, because, at least at the time, most owners of Chinese restaurants didn’t celebrate Christmas. Should Juneteenth be that way? Those who are connected with people who were harmed by slavery celebrate and the rest of us help make that possible by working a little more to fill in the absence of the co-worker who gets the day off? Does that create more division? Does that breed resentment? Does it make the differences between us more salient?

Like I said, I don’t know what the right thing is here, but there’s something about the current situation that doesn’t feel right to me. But maybe that’s OK. Maybe being forced to think about how a whole race of human beings were mistreated (“mistreated” feels so understated) isn’t supposed to feel good. Maybe if I take the day off and feel guilty about it, that guilt is a good thing. Maybe that’s OK.

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