Today, as a white American, I find myself wondering “What does Juneteenth mean to me?” Maybe that’s a question a lot of white Americans are asking themselves right now.
I don’t presume to know or to say what Juneteenth means to Black Americans. Its meaning and expression are defined by an evolving cultural process happening primarily among Black Americans. But I do think it is a good time for me to deeply consider a possibility that I’ve been thinking about over the last few weeks: maybe Black Americans love America in a way I haven’t the ability to truly share.
Have you ever loved someone who didn’t seem to love you back? How about someone who is actively cruel to you? Someone who constantly threatens you with violence? How could you possibly maintain a love for that person?
Love of country and love of a person are not easily comparable concepts, but my point is that Black Americans know how it feels to love a country that too often has treated them very poorly.
Black Americans must often be frustrated, down-hearted, and beat down by America’s cruelty toward them, now and in the past. But they demonstrate a special love for America through Juneteenth, nonetheless.
White Americans cannot truly share in the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Nor do many white Americans fully experience the grinding cruelty of America’s economic and justice systems that are still aimed at deliberately undermining Black Americans in particular. Without that legacy of maltreatment, white Americans can’t really share Black Americans’ particular love for America. But we can, and should, try to understand it. And admire it.
It is frankly rather simple for most white Americans to love America. It was made for us, caters to us, cares for us, works in our interest most of the time. Its story is all about us. That is no small part of what we call white privilege.
Yet despite the fact that this country was not built for them — was in fact built on them — Black Americans have made, and continue to make, fundamental contributions to the American story, and to demand that America live up to its highest ideals. Their leaders – our Black leaders – have inspired so many Americans of all races to believe in those ideals, too. Black Americans’ particular love for America has inspired Americans to make America worthy of the world’s love.
Black Americans and their allies of all races are out in America’s streets right now, leading America at risk to their very lives in the face of a pandemic and police brutality, demanding once again that America live up to its ideals and aspirations. That is a gift, a challenge, and a calling to a higher purpose for America; and that is love.
Black Americans’ inexpressibly hopeful, beautiful, challenging, and particular love of America, despite America’s many failings of them, is the meaning of Juneteenth to me as a white American.
Some might believe, misguidedly, that America has already lived up to our ideals. We have not. We are not nearly finished. We may never be finished. But we can always take the next step. And when we do, we will find that Black Americans have built the path we walk on.
I am not saying that the love of Black Americans for America demonstrated on Juneteenth is greater, better, or more valuable than every American’s love. I am saying that it is different from the love we all – including Black Americans – celebrate on the 4th of July. It is a unique and separate way of loving and celebrating America; and it is not just “a Black Fourth of July.”
All Americans should celebrate Juneteenth because Juneteenth celebrates a remarkable love of America in a way that no other holiday can. It should be a national holiday.
Happy Juneteenth, America.