The South Asian Guide to Juneteenth: Now a National Holiday

It’s a safe to say that most Indians/South Asians outside of the US had not heard of Juneteenth until once-POTUS Trump had made the controversial (and insensitive) choice to hold a rally— in Tulsa, Oklahoma, of all places, the site of the atrocious 1921 massacre of 100 Black citizens, sparking a massive reaction from African Americans and their allies everywhere.  But now that it’s back on the horizon and back in the news (for reasons we will explore), it begs the question: why is Juneteenth history such a sensitive issue all over the US? While we’ll get to in a bit, the outrage against apathy and the awareness itself was at least a century too late, so let’s break it down:

When is Juneteenth, anyway?

Juneteenth is commemorated on the 19th of June, primarily in Texas. Why Texas? It was in Galveston on the 19th of June, 1865, that Union General Gordon Granger issued General Order Number 3 declaring: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

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Juneteenth General Order 3 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

250,000 slaves were emancipated and continued what had till then been a subculture of political engagement and began a universal fight for true integration which continues till today.

What is Juneteenth?

Texas was the last in the Confederacy to receive word that the Civil War was over and that slavery had been abolished, and the last where the federal Army established its authority (Bloomberg Quint).

It wasn’t technically the very “last,” though, as slavery was still legal and practiced in Union border states and Indian territories well until the end of the year when the 13th Amendment in December 1865 officially ended slavery nationwide. Still, the date holds great meaning for African Americans everywhere.

Even the Mascogos, descendants of Black Seminoles, who escaped from U.S. slavery in 1852 and settled in Coahuila, Mexico, celebrate Juneteenth (Washington Post).

Is it a national holiday?

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Juneteenth Emancipation Day Celebration, June 19, 1900, Texas (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Up till a few days ago, 47 states other than Texas and Washington, D.C. have passed legislation recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday or a public observance. There have been enthusiastic efforts made to have this come to fruition. The most powerful and poignant one, in our book, is 93-year-old activist and ex-elementary school teacher Opal Lee’s annual 2.5 mile walk to recognize the 2.5 years it took for the news of freedom to reach all enslaved people in the United States. That’s a bit of history you should learn more about in books like On Juneteenth, by historian Annette Gordon-Reed. However, as of June 15, 2021, bolstered by the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s reason to rejoice. The US Senate unanimously passed a bill declaring Juneteenth to be a federal holiday, a major victory in the celebration of freedom from emancipation (CNN).

How is it celebrated?

In many, many ways including family dinners, celebratory gatherings, rallies for nationalizing Juneteenth, and even Miss Juneteenth pageants.

You can also see rodeos, street fairs, cookouts, family reunions, historical re-enactments (DBpedia)— there’s a reason some call it the Black 4th of July.

Protest signs at Black Lives Matter Knoxville’s Juneteenth Rally and March, 6.19.20 (Image credits: Heather Mount via Unsplash)

Juneteenth is NOT just a Black event

As members of a world where slavery’s beginnings have dated back to ancient times, we should all be celebrating Juneteenth—us South Asians included. South Asians have a Juneteenth connection through Black minorities very much alive and active all over India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Caribbean.

But that’s not the only reason people outside the Black community, like University of Chicago’s Radhika Santhanagopalan, have taken up the cause through Juneteenth initiatives. Harvard scholar Suraj Yengde has centered his work on and been outspoken about solidarity between Dalit and Black communities—the caste system, stretching to Rig-Vedic times, was also based on colorism, another one of our demons. As South Asians we have our own version of history with indentured labor: the caste system.

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The Governor of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) introducing Sinhalese chiefs to the Prince of Wales,
1876. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The end of slavery in America established not just Black emancipation, but true democracy in America, where all citizens, regardless of race or color would be seen as equals. How close the ideals of the constitution are to reality, however, remains to be seen.