Austin at Large: Every Day is Juneteenth

Yes, freedom is worth celebrating. But it also bids us to do some serious reflection.

Austin at Large: Every Day is Juneteenth

Like other non-native white Texans, I imagine, I had never heard of Juneteenth before moving to Austin in 1988. By that time, it had been a state holiday for nearly a decade and a major community celebration well before that, as it should be. But work remains to be done: "After 155 years, it's well past time to finally set aside a day for recognizing, observing, and celebrating the end of slavery in Texas and the U.S.," Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison tweeted on June 18. "At our next #ATXcouncil meeting, I plan to bring forward action to designate Juneteenth as an official City of Austin ­holiday."

You may be thinking, as I did, "Really? We didn't do that years ago? Who screwed that up?" Or at least, that there must be some interesting backstory about what must have been a deliberate decision to skip Juneteenth. Certainly, Austin's much-treasured self-image as a progressive mecca would have bidden us to make such a gesture before the state did.

So far, my poking around and querying past Council members and City Hall staffers has uncovered no such tale, though I'll keep looking as time and the crises of the day permit. Everyone's response has been much as mine: They thought Austin had given Juneteenth its due, and were surprised and at least a bit ashamed that we had not.

If Good-Enough was Enough

The shame is a little more three-dimensional than it would be if our elected and appointed leaders (that is, the non-Black ones) had simply ignored Juneteenth, or felt the need to counterpoint it with some Confederate Heroes Day bullshit, as the state of Texas notoriously does to offset Martin Luther King's birthday. But even the remaining old segs in state government in 1980 could not deny that Juneteenth commemorates an important event that happened in Texas and is only not worth celebrating if you, for some reason, feel the end of slavery was ill-advised. Even 40 years ago – perhaps even more so than now in MAGA Time – that was not the sort of thing spoken aloud.

The state's embrace of Juneteenth had champions among elected Black leaders in the cities and the Legislature. At the time, Austin, under its "gentleman's agreement," had only recently elected Black members to Council (Berl Handcox, who died last week, took office in 1971). The longstanding flaw of the gentleman's agreement, of course, was that it allowed white Austin voters to decide who the city's Black (and Latinx) leaders were, and those white voters were not at the time pushing for citywide June­teenth celebrations, or taking part in them.

So a status quo prevailed, in which Austin's liberal white people felt that what they had done was good enough – a description of local public affairs that applied all year long, not just on Juneteenth. Things are different now. Harper-Madison, the council's only Black member, represents a culturally diverse Eastside district, crafted with the onset of the 10-1 council, that contains the landmarks and heritage of the Black community for whom Juneteenth has for generations been a bigger deal than the Fourth of July. This year, she emceed the virtual festivities mounted by the Carver Museum, which has a big permanent Juneteenth exhibit and where in non-COVID times she and I both go to vote. Next year, hopefully, there will be a parade.

Here in “White Atlanta” ...

In the wake of Black Lives (Finally) Mattering to white Americans more broadly, Austin is not alone in coming back around to do Juneteenth justice. Making it a holiday is the kind of progressive gesture that's easy for right-thinking white folks to embrace – in a way that benefits them (another three-day weekend to break up that long holiday-free stretch of, um, five weeks between Memorial Day and the Fourth).

This shallow and selfish reality has not gone unnoticed by commentators who have suggested Juneteenth should not be a holiday for white people at all. It seems a pretty narrow read to say that the end of slavery – the freedom of Black Americans from bondage – did not make this country a better place for all Americans and is thus unworthy of joyous celebration. But remember: When the time came, the slaves freed the slaves. Juneteenth is not about some Yankee officer in Galveston giving local white people instructions, and those white Texans' magnanimous response. It's about Black people having a yoke lifted off them and not looking back.

It would be good, having said all that, if white Austin – that is, Austin as a capital of modern American whiteness, what Austin Justice Coalition's Chas Moore aptly describes as "white Atlanta" – set a tone for future serious reflection on the meaning of Juneteenth to us as the heirs to slavery's perpetrators. It need not be as somber as Europe's commemoration of the Holocaust, but it shouldn't be what Memorial Day or the Fourth have become either, emptied of real significance. One of white America's meanest tricks is to expect its Black leaders to tell us how to behave, to deal with our racist realities with dignity, to do all that emotional labor for us. From that responsibility, it would be good to give Black Austin a day off.

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