Renee Graham explains why she's worried about the 'gentrification' of Juneteenth

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Monday is Juneteenth, the federal holiday marking the day slavery ended in Texas in 1865. Congress established it just two years ago in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

But Boston Globe columnist Renee Graham argues that some may be using the holiday to avoid deeper conversations about race and slavery. She joined WBUR's Morning Edition host Rupa Shenoy to discuss.

Interview Highlights

On the gentrification of Juneteenth:

"Well, I think the first thing that I found alarming came last year. There was a celebration in Arkansas and was called the Juneteenth Soul Food Festival, a market in Little Rock. And it had a poster advertising it and everyone on the poster, all three hosts were white. And, you know, obviously, this became a big deal on social media. And it became such a big deal that the event was ultimately canceled. And I just couldn't figure out exactly how you take a day that is so specifically Black and so steeped in Black history in this country and you somehow advertise it with white people. It's not about unity. That's not the point. ... We can get to unity, and that could be part of it. But that is not the core of what Juneteenth is about.

"And I think this is why a lot of Black people, myself included, were a little concerned when it was going to become a federal holiday, because even though we think, you know, we know that they deserve that designation, it always deserved that designation. But we didn't need that. We always celebrated Juneteenth in the spirit of what it represents. And we knew that once it went out in a way to the wider world, it was going to be watered down and you were going to end up with this kind of looting of the history of what Juneteenth is really about."

On what tough conversations she feels people are trying to avoid around Juneteenth:

"Well, if you're going to talk about Juneteenth, you have to talk about slavery and you're talking about when Juneteenth happens. It's June 19, 1865. This was essentially a day that Black people in America had waited 246 years for. You can't talk about Juneteenth without talking about what that represents and what has happened since Juneteenth, because not that long after Juneteenth, after 1865, when the Civil War ends, we are into Jim Crow, which will then last another century.

"But I also don't know how you have those discussions at a time when history is being gutted in a lot of schools and in curriculums where you can't talk about slavery and you can't talk about systemic racism and you can't talk about the Jim Crow era. So how do these two things match up? How do you celebrate a holiday or marker holiday that is so much steeped in many of these things?"

"At its core, it is America's Independence Day, and it should be recognized as such and not just another thing that can somehow be commercialized and gutted of its meaning."

On why this conversation needs to happen now:

"I mean, look, there are people who were even in this conversation before it was even officially a holiday, who were just trying to give some guidance and say, look, you know, this is an extraordinarily important holiday. This is something that Black people have been celebrating for more than a century when most of America wasn't paying attention. A lot of America had never even heard of Juneteenth. It was the first holiday, first federal holiday in 40 years, and it passed in Congress overwhelmingly. Nothing passes in Congress if it passes at all overwhelmingly. So why was there... such a push to get this done? Well, I think it was very performative in the ways that so many things after George Floyd's murder were performative. It looked good, the optics were good. It's more than that. It's more important than that. At its core, it is America's Independence Day, and it should be recognized as such and not just another thing that can somehow be commercialized and gutted of its meaning."

This segment aired on June 19, 2023.


Rupa Shenoy Morning Edition Host
Rupa Shenoy hosts WBUR's Morning Edition.



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