My podcast cohost, Marcia, is a huge Swiftie—she knows every word to every Taylor Swift song, the hidden messages in each album, and which periods of Taylor’s personal life correspond to her releases. For that reason, when I was lucky enough to find tickets to Swift’s current concert tour, I knew exactly who I was going to invite. Marcia danced, sang, and laughed throughout the night, and I was a witness to this moment of “Black Girl Magic.” I teared up being able to see her forget herself in the excitement, fun, and camaraderie of the moment.
I had a similar reaction when attending mass at one of the Black parishes in Chicago this spring. The communion meditation song featured a solo by one of the older women in the choir, who was likely in her early 80s. Though age had weathered her voice, her strong alto testified to the words she sang as they carried into the congregation,
“The road is rough; the going gets tough
and the hills are hard to climb
I’ve started out a long time ago
there’s no doubt in my mind
I’ve decided to make Jesus my choice.”
Another instance came at our Fourth of July cookout last year, watching my cousin play with his new baby. Their smiles were genuine and unguarded as he splashed the baby’s hands in the pool. All around, family and friends exclaimed over food, brought up old debates, and bobbed their heads to the playlist mix. Everyone was relaxed, but my cousin radiated joy. He was a loving dad taking delight as his son learned about the world. And I couldn’t pull my eyes away.
More and more, I find myself attuned to these moments of joy in my community. They shimmer like precious gems in my life reminding me of the hope, resilience, and genius of the people of the African Diaspora. In spite of enslavement, colonialism, racism, and other systemic forms of oppression, joy overflows in Black people. Our story is one of turning woundedness into joy and being transformed in doing so. Our story is a story of resurrection. And the celebration of Juneteenth is a prime example of this transformation.
Juneteenth is the commemoration of the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 to 25,000 enslaved people. While the Proclamation itself went into effect in 1863, enslaved men and women in rebellious Confederate states were still in bondage until Union troops took control of the territory. Texas, as the westernmost Confederate state, was the last to come under Union control. During the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War (1865–1877), Black Texans celebrated their liberation day as a new holiday, full of the joy of obtaining freedom at long last.
As Jim Crow laws took hold following the Reconstruction period, Black Texans continued to celebrate Juneteenth but were often met with racism from their white neighbors, including violent attacks. Still, they continued to host parties and festivals, in spite of the many ways oppression by the state government continued. As the Great Migration began in the early 20th century, these families brought the Juneteenth celebration with them to other Southern states and the many cities in the North where they found themselves. Though originally unique to Texas, many other Black Americans found hope and joy in the holiday and adopted it themselves.
The movement to make Juneteenth a national holiday began in the mid-20th century, with multiple attempts to codify the date brought to Congress. In 2016, Opal Lee, retired teacher from Fort Worth, Texas, decided to put her energy into a targeted Juneteenth. Aged 89 years old, she walked from Fort Worth to Washington, DC in order to draw attention to the cause. She spent the next six years walking in various cities, attending Juneteenth celebrations, and advocating for civil rights. Juneteenth was officially declared a national holiday in 2021, and Lee was present at the White House to witness the signing of the bill into law.
Juneteenth is a celebration which, even as it is borne out of a racist past, centers around relishing Black freedom rather than focusing on the fact that the Confederacy prevented the proclamation of that freedom. Its continued celebration in Texas in spite of racist attacks is an example of the perseverance in hope characteristic of Black culture in America. The spread of Juneteenth celebrations throughout the U.S. over the past hundred or so years testifies to the powerful joy found in liberation and its ability to encourage individuals to carry on in the face of discrimination and inequality.
That type of unflinching belief in the ultimate victory of good mirrors the Christian firmness of trust in the Resurrection and Jesus’ victory over sin and death. Even the story of Mrs. Opal Lee, the mother of Juneteenth, is a story of resolute commitment to the vision of a different, more joyful future. The story of Juneteenth is the story of bringing new life out of the depths of despair toward a world that looks more like the Kingdom of God.
As an Easter people, Catholics should see here the patterns of our own journey. Regardless of our ancestry, we are all a people emancipated from slavery to sin into new life and liberation. We live in a world in which we may be isolated, oppressed, or lacking hope. Yet we are called to perseverance, trust, and joy in spite of setbacks. We are vision keepers who prophesy about a future where wholeness and freedom will be given to all and even death itself will end. Juneteenth can be more than a national holiday for us. It can be a celebration of Christian hope; of Christ’s triumph over all powers and principalities; and most importantly, the joy that comes from knowing Jesus and making him our choice.
This does not mean we can ignore the wounds that have come from America’s sin of racism or that are still inflicted by it. Celebrating Juneteenth is an act of subversive memory—something that contradicts the easy narratives which relegate white supremacy to a few bad actors over the course of American history. It is a subversive memory because the joy of the holiday can only be understood when we acknowledge the reason it exists in the first place. But this should be no surprise to those of us who know and love Jesus. We know we cannot experience resurrection without crucifixion. But we also know that the wounds can be transformed by the love and mercy of a good and faithful God who brings us out of darkness into marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9).
That is the lens that I bring to my celebration of Juneteenth this year. My hope as the descendant of enslaved Africans that good will triumph over evil is not born simply of culture, but also of my love for Jesus who has overcome evil for eternity. While there is much work to do around me to live up to the promise of Juneteenth, I have seen the fullness of life God offers. I will keep my eyes fixed on him who is the author and perfecter of faith (Heb. 12:2). I will be a keeper of the vision, resolute in sharing what life could be in a world where every chain has been broken and woundedness forever gives way to joy.
Image: Unsplash/Avel Chuklanov