She has been roiling about it since the news dropped on Thursday: Juneteenth is now a federal holiday.
“So white people get a day off? White people are gonna be throwing Juneteenth barbecues now?” she steams over and over, to me in our apartment, on the phone, on social media. “When we were kids the cops used to bust up the Juneteenth parties. White people didn’t even know about it. They just called the cops on us.”
She’s right, of course. I support her, agree with her, but don’t know how to meet her in her rage.
“White people need to spend Juneteenth in an all-day anti-Racist seminar. Let this be Juneteenth for us, and Juneteenth Awareness Day for the rest of America.”
I want to stand up and applaud her at that. She is brilliant and wise and crackling with power. She is witnessing the days leading up to a Black celebration, co-opted. Gone away to white America. This year marks the first time. The inauguration of the shift.
When the day arrives, she sleeps through half of it. I’m not sure how to greet her when she wakes. “Happy Juneteenth,” I say, holding back a tumble of regrets. In the pause before she answers, I swallowing down a litany of weak disclaimers: I’m sorry they, I’m sorry we, stole this one from you too. I’m sorry nothing’s changed. I’m sorry for the vultures who come, and come again to feed on the creativity of Black America. Sorry that I’m, sorry if I’m, sorry to be one of them. “Happy Juneteenth,” she answers, before I crack into saying some stupid shit and ruining the first moment of a day that should be hers to celebrate, not mourn. A day that can never be the same again.
We live in a stark-white town. Most of the Black community that she once had here have moved away for good, or are living elsewhere temporarily as long as work remains remote. We are far away from family. There are no barbecue invitations.
She spends the day alone. “I’m luxuriating with the ancestors,” she tells me before folding herself away into a sequence of yoga and journaling and revising the blurbs on her vision board.
And as for me, well– I can claim no righteousness for my first Juneteenth Awareness Day. I do not spend the day educating myself about racism. Instead I bike around the town, thinking. Somewhere in the most rural reaches of this small, white town I smell barbecue, and cannabis burning. They are having cookouts. White people are having Juneteenth cookouts. She was right. She always is.
She’s on the phone with her favorite cousin when I get back in, sharing a libation over video chat. After blowing my kisses into the phone and wishing her Happy Juneteenth, I settle in out of frame and they pick up where they were.
My wife says, “It’s going to go the way of Saint Patrick’s Day. Of Pride. We didn’t ask for this.”
“They just Americanize it,” her cousin answers. “Same as this country does with everything. Think about it. How many people even know what Cinco de Mayo is about? But every year, out come the sombreros and the Mexican beer… That’s what this country does. Turns a profit off of everything.”
She goes on, picking up steam. “They knew they had to give us something. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act has not been passed. Our voting rights are slipping away. So they give us Juneteenth off and they think, maybe this will shut them up for a while.”
“But it won’t,” says my wife.
“No, it won’t,” her cousin continues. “We won’t shut up. We never will. And as for Juneteenth going mainstream– if it makes more white people aware of the truth about this country, then I say it’s a good thing. Because they need to think about their ancestors, too. To think about what their ancestors created. People are so ignorant. They’ll try to re-write history. But America needs to remember what it is capable of.”
My wife sighs. “I guess you’re right. I’m just grieving it, is all.”
Reader, I have no answers I can offer to anyone for any of this. There is nothing I can say that should guide any white American to anywhere the mind can rest. The vertigo of my discomfort tips and spirals and swells. By next year it will likely be even worse.
Darkness comes. At the window, I look out over the pristine loveliness of the small, white town that daily finds new ways to alienate this woman, this regal spirit who I’m lucky enough to get to love.
“Happy first Juneteenth, non-Black America,” I whisper. “May we spend it well.”