UCLA sociology professor Karida Brown didn’t grow up celebrating Juneteenth, but she’s celebrating this year, back in the town where she grew up, Uniondale on Long Island in New York. She’ll be inducted into her high school hall of fame on June 19.
Brown learned about Juneteenth as a Black holiday while she was a graduate student at Brown University and as she worked on her book. During those five years she interviewed 153 current and former residents of Harlan County, Kentucky, a coal-mining town that boomed from the 1920s through 1960s and included a large population of Black residents.
Brown’s roots reach back to Harlan County, where her parents and grandparents once lived. When she asked them about what she had learned about Juneteenth and how it has historically been celebrated in Black communities, the word “Juneteenth” didn’t connect — but the descriptions of the celebrations, and why they were held, did.
“They said, ‘Oh, you mean the eighth of August,” Brown said. “In these coal mining towns in Kentucky, that was Black Independence Day. My parents very much carry the memory of the meaning of the holiday through their experiences in their childhood, but it wasn’t something they passed down.”
As is often the case in history, progress isn’t linear. In Kentucky and other Southern states, Black communities began celebrating the eighth of August in sometime in the 1860s, commemorating the date that Andrew Johnson, then military-governor of Tennessee freed his personal slaves. Enslaved Black Americans in Texas learned of emancipation on June 19, 1865 — the first Juneteenth — more than six months after the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, took effect.
As Brown researched and wrote “Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia,” which came out in 2019, she heard many memories of the eighth of August celebrations, stories of parades, performers and parties paid for by U.S. Steel, the company that owned the town of Lynch, Kentucky.
“They would have free ice cream and candy, events for children, musicians would come and play in the city,” Brown said. “And the white folks stayed in their house. On the Fourth of July it was the opposite. Black folks stayed in the house and those same parties were thrown for the white coal miners.”
The town essentially died in the 1970s after the mines closed. Black workers were the first to be laid off as mechanization advanced. Black families that had lived in the area for decades were the first to move away.
By and large, American history is taught with a troubling sense of segregated memory, Brown said. This is just as damaging to racial justice as the actual anti-Black segregation laws and attitudes that dominate the story of our country.
It’s part of why she wanted to write the book in the first place, seeing narratives that portray the Appalachian region as white, poor and fraught with pejorative characteristics.
“That was not my experience, so in some ways I wanted to reconcile those things for my own knowledge, reconciling this mismatch between who I knew my folks to be and what the media was telling me we were,” Brown said. “It truly changed my life.”
Brown holds her role as an educator as a potent and necessary antidote to segregated memory, even as critical race theory becomes a convenient point of attack from conservative elements in the political sphere.
“It’s a reminder to me of the sacredness of what it means to be an educator in this moment, not just as a faculty member, but as an everyday teacher,” Brown said. “We can all be teachers in one way or another. We can all be in a place where we can continue to grow and elevate our own consciousness and be continual learners.”
On June 17, President Joe Biden signed into law that Juneteenth would be observed as a national holiday every year on June 19, the result of nearly four decades of advocacy, an uphill battle.
It’s a long-overdue and welcome action, Brown said, but it’s not a culmination. It’s a moment of cultural paradox.
“I think about this in two ways,” she said. “First, I have the capacity to hold space for this commemorative holiday on its own, in its own beauty. And what is it about? It’s about Black freedom, Black joy. And for Black people among one another to recognize ourselves and our full humanity and say, ‘We made it. We’re still here.’ But indeed, many of us who are looking at this are seeing how commemorative holidays also function to symbolically project one thing that might be completely misaligned and unmoored from what is actually going on on the ground.”
Brown would like to see bills passed that have material heft to them, giving Black communities tangible things to celebrate on a national holiday — like bills that protect voting rights, support for reparations, anti-hate, anti-lynching and criminal justice reform legislation, a stronger commitment to understand the myriad histories woven into the story of America.
“Things that work to cash in that promissory note of life, liberty and happiness for all of us, freedom and equality for all of us,” Brown said. “Let’s see what democracy would actually look like if we tried, for all of us to have it. Those are the things that I’d like to see paired with these celebrations so that our actions, our hearts and minds are in full alignment with our American ideals.”
Still, Juneteenth is the Black Fourth of July, a day of community, of food and celebration and music — things that Brown says she holds sacred. For those in Los Angeles who want to celebrate Juneteenth, she recommends the festivities planned in Leimert Park, one of the few historically Black neighborhoods left in the city.
“It’s so important to hold space for joy and I’m going to celebrate Juneteenth,” Brown said. “But at the same time be aware of exactly how this and other symbolic celebrations, commemorative acts and events can be used to distract us, to take our eye off the prize or conflate symbolism with freedom. Those two things are not the same.”