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The beginner's guide to celebrating Juneteenth

For generations, Black Americans have recognized the end of one of history’s darkest chapters with joy, in the form of parades, performances or cookouts.
A man carries his son holding a Pan-African flag to celebrate during a Juneteenth commemoration
Posted at 5:56 PM, Jun 18, 2024

For more than 1 1/2 centuries, theJuneteenth holiday has been sacred to many Black communities.

It marks the day in 1865 enslaved people in Galveston, Texas found out they had been freed — after the end of the Civil War, and two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Since it was designated a federal holiday in 2021, Juneteenth has become more universally recognized beyond Black America. Many people get the day off work or school, and there are a plethora of street festivals, fairs, concerts and other events.

People who never gave the June 19 holiday more than a passing thought may be asking themselves, is there a “right” way to celebrate Juneteenth?

For beginners and those brushing up on history, here are some answers:

Is Juneteenth a solemn day of remembrance or more of a party?

It just depends on what you want. Juneteenth festivities are rooted in cookouts and barbecues. In the beginnings of the holiday celebrated as Black Americans’ true Independence Day, the outdoors allowed for large, raucous reunions among formerly enslaved families, many of whom had been separated. The gatherings were especially revolutionary because they were free of restrictive measures, known as “Black Codes,” enforced in Confederate states, controlling whether liberated slaves could vote, buy property, gather for worship and other aspects of daily life.

Last week, the White House kicked things off early with a concert on the South Lawn for Juneteenth and Black Music Month. Singers Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle were among the lineup of well-known artists from gospel, rap, jazz and other genres. The atmosphere was primarily festive with Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black vice president, dancing on stage with gospel singer Kirk Franklin.

“Today as we celebrate Juneteenth, together we are reminded of the promise of America,” Harris said in opening remarks. “A promise of freedom, liberty and opportunity, not for some but for all. In many ways the story of Juneteenth and of our nation is a story of our ongoing fight to realize that promise.”

Others may choose to treat Juneteenth as a day of rest and remembrance. That can mean doing community service, attending an education panel or taking time off.

The important thing is to make people feel they have options on how to observe the occasion, said Dr. David Anderson, a Black pastor and CEO of Gracism Global, a consulting firm helping leaders navigate conversations bridging divides across race and culture.

“Just like the Martin Luther King holiday, we say it’s a day of service and a lot of people will do things. There are a lot of other people who are just ‘I appreciate Dr. King, I’ll watch what’s on the television, and I’m gonna rest,’” Anderson said. “I don’t want to make people feel guilty about that. What I want to do is give everyday people a choice.”

What if you've never celebrated Juneteenth?

Anderson never did anything on Juneteenth in his youth. He didn’t learn about it until his 30s.

“I think many folks haven’t known about it — who are even my color as an African American male. Even if you heard about it and knew about it, you didn’t celebrate it,” Anderson said. “It was like just a part of history. It wasn’t a celebration of history.”

For many African Americans, the farther away from Texas that they grew up increased the likelihood they didn’t have big Juneteenth celebrations regularly. In the South, the day can vary based on when word of Emancipation reached each state.

What kind of public Juneteenth events are going on around the country?

Search online and you will find a smorgasbord of gatherings in major cities and suburbs all varying in scope and tone. Some are more carnival-esque festivals with food trucks, arts and crafts and parades. Within those festivals, you’ll likely find access to professionals in health care, finance and community resources. There also are concerts and fashion shows to highlight Black excellence and creativity. For those who want to look back, plenty of organizations and universities host panels to remind people of Juneteenth’s history.

For the first time since Juneteenth was federally recognized, the National Park Service is making entry into all sites free on the holiday. Several parks will be hosting Juneteenth commemorations this week.

Are there special foods served on Juneteenth?

Aside from barbecue, the color red has been a through line for Juneteenth food for generations. Red symbolizes the bloodshed and sacrifice of enslaved ancestors. A Juneteenth menu might incorporate items like barbecued ribs or other red meat, watermelon and red velvet cake. Drinks like fruit punch and red Kool-Aid may make an appearance at the table.

Does how you celebrate Juneteenth matter if you aren't Black?

Dr. Karida Brown, a sociology professor at Emory University whose research focuses on race, said there’s no reason to feel awkward about wanting to recognize Juneteenth just because you have no personal ties or you’re not Black. In fact, embrace it.

“I would reframe that and challenge my non-Black folks who want to lean into Juneteenth and celebrate,” Brown said. “It absolutely is your history. It absolutely is a part of your experience. ... Isn’t this all of our history? The good, the bad, the ugly, the story of emancipation and freedom for your Black brothers and sisters under the Constitution of the law.”

If you want to bring some authenticity to your recognition of Juneteenth, educate yourself. Attending a street festival or patronizing a Black-owned business is a good start but it also would be good to “make your mind better,” Anderson said.

“That goes longer than a celebration,” Anderson said. “I think Black people need to do it too because it’s new for us as well, in America. But for non-Black people, if they could read on this topic and read on Black history beyond Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, that would show me that you’re really serious about growing in this area.”

If you’re struggling with how to “ethically” mark the day, Brown also suggested expanding your knowledge of why the holiday matters so much. That can be through reading, attending an event or going to an African American history museum if there’s one nearby.

“Have that full human experience of seeing yourself in and through the eyes of others, even if that’s not your own lived experience,” she said. “That is a radical human act that is awesome and should be encouraged and celebrated.”

What are other names used to refer to Juneteenth?

Over the decades, Juneteenth has also been called Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, Black Fourth of July and second Independence Day among others.

“Because 1776, Fourth of July, where we’re celebrating freedom and liberty and all of that, that did not include my descendants,” Brown said. “Black people in America were still enslaved. So that that holiday always comes with a bittersweet tinge to it.”

Is there a proper Juneteenth greeting?

It’s typical to wish people a “Happy Juneteenth” or “Happy Teenth," according to Alan Freeman, a comedian organizing a Juneteenth comedy festival in Galveston, Texas for the second straight year.

“You know how at Christmas people will say ‘Merry Christmas’ to each other and not even know each other?" Freeman said. “You can get a ‘Merry Christmas’ from everybody. This is the same way.”