Legislation to make Juneteenth a national holiday passed in the Senate by unanimous consent on Tuesday, and a day later, on Wednesday, the House voted in favor of the bill. Now, the bill will land on President Biden’s desk, where he’s expected to sign it into law just days ahead of the holiday on June 19 — which will then make Juneteenth National Independence Day a federally recognized holiday.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers told the Black people in Galveston, Texas, who were still enslaved after the Civil War, that they were free. The holiday has been celebrated in Black communities across the U.S. (especially in Texas) since then, and activists, including 94-year-old Opal Lee, have been lobbying to make the day a federal holiday for years. But the holiday and its relevance and symbolism didn’t become part of a national conversation about racism until last year’s uprisings that followed the murder of George Floyd.
Despite the groundswell of support for official recognition, not everyone in Congress was on board. Representative Matt Rosendale (R-MT) referred to the creation of the holiday as “an effort by the left to create a day out of whole cloth to celebrate identity politics as part of its larger efforts to make critical race theory the reigning ideology of our country.” Rosendale wasn’t the only Republican to vote no. Although the bill had bipartisan support, there were 14 no votes in the House and they were all Republicans.
Juneteenth National Independence Day is the first new federal holiday since the 1983 creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and that holiday’s history is a little foreboding, as it has provided ample opportunity for distortions of King’s legacy and become overwhelmingly whitewashed and gentrified over the years. Additionally, when reflecting on King’s true teachings and philosophies, the U.S. we’re living in hasn’t honored him in the ways that count.
That same hypocrisy is already seizing Juneteenth. Even some of the Republicans who voted in favor of making Juneteenth a federal holiday are actively working to disenfranchise Black voters by gutting the Voting Rights Act and creating voter suppression laws. Some of these pro-Juneteenth Republicans have also created and supported laws that ban teaching students about the role racism has played in U.S. history and the ways in which it continues to impact the country we live in today, rallying against the boogeyman of critical race theory.
I can’t help but wonder what this means for Juneteenth in the future. Will there be “Juneteenth” car sales and mattress sales “celebrating freedom” and open to all? Will the holiday become another example of white folks capitalizing off of Black labor?
Juneteenth should be nationally recognized — it symbolizes and means much more than the Fourth of July does for many Americans, myself included. But I don’t feel comfortable saying it should be “celebrated” by non-Black Americans. This major milestone reeks of insincerity, and the speed in which it was passed serves as a reminder of how quickly our government can work. To honor Juneteenth is to honor Black Americans — our history, our contributions, and our lives. Black activists and Americans have been telling politicians what we need in order to feel safe and thrive in our own country, but action hasn’t been taken. Making it crystal clear that lawmakers don’t really honor Black Americans. So again, this gesture is just that — a gesture.
These same lawmakers have the opportunity to truly change the lives of Black Americans in ways that honor the meaning of holidays like Dr. King Day and Juneteenth, but they haven’t done it yet. That is what will make me, a Black woman, feel seen and valued. That is what will make me feel more free.
Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: What Is Juneteenth, How Is It Celebrated, and Why Does It Matter?
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue