Val’s Blog - What’s Juneteenth?

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“What’s Juneteenth?” asked my granddaughter on our trip to Washington D.C., as I mentioned having a holiday off from work. This was but one of many questions generated by my nine and ten-year-old granddaughters on our first grandparent-grandchild road trip sans parents. I felt sure I knew the answer to each question regarding the sights and history we were introducing to them. Still, upon offering explanations, again and again, I found myself questioning my conceptual grasp of history.

At the Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorials, my school studies and love of historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin and John Meacham, and even my recollections of my grandfather’s view on FDR gave me some level of confidence in my explanations. However, as I mentioned the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in response to the Juneteenth question, I had to admit that my understanding of Juneteenth was the equivalent of a tour guide’s 10-second bit about the site just passed on a moving bus.

There are many Federal holidays that, for some, are nothing more than a day off from work or an excuse to set off fireworks. Memorial Day is often one of those holidays. For me, though, it is a memory of filling the car trunk full of lilacs and any other early spring flower in bloom to take to a myriad of cemeteries as my mother recited the names of my ancestors and noted the graves of Civil War, and World War veterans from our family. It was an all-day excursion as we traveled from graveyard to graveyard across the county. Independence Day, throughout my life, has been a day of celebration, of time with family. Perhaps that wholesome summer fun does in some way symbolize the historic nature of the day - the declaration to live free from the tyranny of a king - the freedom to make one’s life better might just underlie the BBQs and softball games.

As I’ve grown older, I enjoy my memories of these national holidays, feel the warmth of happy times spent with family, and piece together the stories told so long ago. I do so only in fragmented bits, but still, it is a part of me. Those memories remind me of the importance of our history that those holidays represent.

The notion, the memories of Juneteenth, however, are not there for me. It was not a part of my upbringing - not a part of my sense of self. Until it became a Federal holiday, I was only vaguely aware of its existence.

When the founding fathers penned the Declaration of Independence in 1776, they were ambitious in their plans to break free from being ruled by a king and progressive in their ideas for forming a new country. The words of the Declaration of Independence provide the ideals upon which the country was formed.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness...”

However, no matter how noble the experiment was of starting a new nation, it was a nation dependent upon the contributions of the enslaved. It was a declaration of independence, but in practice, only for some - the privileged few. Dependence upon slavery nearly broke our country apart. It diminished us as a country, and our redemption is still far from our grasp.

Juneteenth, just a couple of weeks before July 4th, Independence Day, helps us as a nation more fully understand our historical struggle to establish the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for ALL. It is only in establishing rights for all that we could truly become a great nation.

I want Juneteenth to be part of my American experience going forward. I want my granddaughters to understand and experience the significance of the day. Acknowledging the struggles and suffering that have come before us, and developing, an understanding of our history is essential to appreciate the progress we’ve made and to help guide us to make a better country and world.

To learn more about Juneteenth, I recommend Annette Gordon-Reed’s On Juneteenth and the Terri Gross, Fresh Air interview with the author also provides insights into the importance of our newest federal holiday

Valerie Kelly is Associate Vice President of the Office of Continuing & Distance Education. She is responsible for the oversight, strategic innovation, and faculty/student support for Kent State Online programs and courses including Continuing Education credit and non-credit workshops/certificates and conferences.
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