Until 2020, the world had never seen a holiday go viral. Nearly overnight, the business world—from Apple to ZocDoc—higher education, and even several NFL teams moved from, in some cases, complete ignorance to full recognition of Juneteenth. Today’s holiday is all the rage across America and beyond.
The viral magic of Juneteenth starts with its name. A fusion of June with nineteenth, it carries a certain musicality that feels celebratory. Its historical origins are even more enchanting. On June 19, 1865, just two months after Robert E. Lee’s surrender, Union major general George Granger issued an order in Galveston, Texas, that declared:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”
The military order signified the Union Army’s domain over Texas; black people in Texas immediately understood it as a formal declaration that slavery was no longer. The details are, of course, much more complicated. June 19, 1865, hardly meant the end of hard days for Texas’ 250,000 former slaves. Still, the date stuck, and celebrations of it started as early as 1866.
Juneteenth is special because it’s about what African Americans experienced and interpreted as a moment of freedom, rather than what Abraham Lincoln (or some piece of paper) said. After all, hundreds of thousands of African Americans remained enslaved even after the Emancipation Proclamation, which was two and half years prior to Granger’s order.
For over a century, Juneteenth has been an unofficial American holiday, celebrated largely by the African American community, and even more specifically in certain parts of the country (e.g., Texas and parts of the midwestern and southern United States). Contrary to the US president claiming this week that, before him, “nobody had ever heard of it,” more than 45 states have passed legislation recognizing Juneteenth in the past few years, and celebrations have grown in scope are now celebrated in all regions. Organizers in Anchorage, Alaska, for example, were so emboldened by the Black Lives Matter protests that they decided to make Juneteenth 2020 a week-long affair.
The fuel behind the amplification of the Juneteenth signal was not simply historical reflection but the uprisings that followed the killing of George Floyd, and perhaps the pandemic. Both the uprisings and Covid-19’s disproportionate burden on the African American community reveal the failure of emancipation: The descendents of those emancipated during and just after the Civil War still live in conditions commensurate with second-class citizenship.
Data brings this narrative to life. Below, Google Trends’ five-year patterns for search queries of Black Lives Matter and Juneteenth are compared. Juneteenth demonstrates a periodicity that corresponds with the holiday every year. 2020 has marked the most the term has ever been searched, and especially the weeks of the uprisings (starting in late May 2020).
Twitter activity illustrates how the recent mentions of the holiday are strongly associated with Black Lives Matter retweets. Juneteenth reached its peak rank of 696—as in, only 695 words were more frequently retweeted—on June 12, 2020. Note how Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, became one of the very most retweeted terms on all of Twitter in this window (reaching “Lexical Fame” status as seen on the graph).
Juneteenth is conveniently positioned on the calendar this turbulent year to serve as a moment when the Black Lives Matter movement, and the African American community in general, could reflect, heal, and celebrate. But in 2020, the day has begun to take on a newer, broader meaning, which has made its general message easier to digest, expanding its reach. And it was able to do so because it bears several important characteristics.
Unlike Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Juneteenth is not named after an individual, and is therefore less susceptible to either slander or symbolic canonization. King’s adoption as an establishment figure may have undermined his radical politics, which were a part of his actual identity (but absent in the modern, popular iteration of King). He is routinely invoked as a model for how African Americans should behave in response to racial injustice. At thousands of American Facebook dinner tables, critics of Black Lives Matter argue that activists should “act like Dr. Martin Luther King.” Their King is a cartoon who pushed an ideology that required no sacrifices, and made no one feel uncomfortable.
Because Juneteenth isn’t attached to an individual, this type of ideological and historical gerrymandering is more challenging. All current recognitions of Juneteenth must involve some recognition of the past, a celebration of liberation in light of slavery. When announcing Harvard’s closure for this year’s Juneteenth, for example, president Lawrence Bacow noted that the holiday “offers a moment to acknowledge and celebrate the promise of a new beginning.”
Juneteenth also doesn’t require religion. This is important, because while several religions have holidays that invoke the notion of liberation in some sense, the merging of those holidays to religious doctrine can make those holidays inconvenient for nonpractitioners and nonbelievers. Despite its very American roots, Juneteenth is liberated from religion and has the potential to serve as an international, cross-cultural celebration of liberation. The challenge here is in preserving the African American cultural signature on the holiday (very necessary) while recognizing that the United States is hardly the only country with a history of slavery. Juneteenth may resonate not only with other persons of African descent with roots in South America and the Caribbean but also in many parts of the world that have experienced colonialism or other long-term, institutional forms of ethnic or racial oppression.
Lastly, Juneteenth’s central messages about the power of true emancipation might be attractive across political, ideological, and other existing subdivisions. And though this general message might be digestible to the average person, the holiday may offer subtleties that remain poignant, and can (in the right context) do real anti-racist work. Framed correctly, Juneteenth offers an opportunity for reflection and racial reckoning that is utterly taboo in American public discourse. In this way, it can serve as an inspiration for new rituals that put freedom at their center and require a recognition of those forces and institutions that have undermined it. This would be a quantum leap forward, as one of America’s unwritten rules of historical etiquette has always been to never talk honestly, or openly, about slavery.
You don’t need to be a cynic to predict a pessimistic alternative: that the widespread adoption of Juneteenth will transform serious reflections on slavery into a day of cookouts, cornhole, and laptop sales on Amazon. After all, denial and dishonesty on matters of race are as American as apple pie. But as the fallout from the protests of 2020 have already led to concrete policy discussions in several realms (especially policing and criminal justice), then it is also valid to imagine a new reality: Even if we can’t agree on whether government should be large or small, or what god to worship (if any), we can at least agree on the primacy of freedom from slavery, the type that Juneteenth can make us consider. And though it is only viral as an idea, it may represent the first step toward real reconciliation in the United States, which includes full recognition of its past sins and their ongoing, systemic consequences.
Photographs: Al Bello/Getty Images; Jeffrey Greenberg/Getty Images; Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images; Denver Post/Getty Images