0616blog

Recognizing an Important Day

I am embarrassed but I had never heard of Juneteenth until last year and I suspect that many white people are not familiar with the holiday that has long been celebrated in the African American community as the official end of slavery in the U.S.

We have a long list of national holidays, decided subjectively and politically, but Juneteenth is not one of them, at least not yet. Yesterday, the U.S. Senate voted to recognize the day and in the likely event that the House votes likewise, it will become the 11th national holiday. Texas was the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday in 1980 and 45 other states and the District of Columbia have taken similar action.

We set aside a national day to honor Christopher Columbus, who historians note was responsible for the genocide of Native Americans; we celebrate Christmas Day as a national holiday, even though a large percentage of Americans are not Christians; we commemorate Memorial Day to honor Americans who died in war and Veterans Day, to honor all who served in the Armed Forces; we honor the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but that is limited to one man. We still do not have a national holiday to honor the memories of the millions of Americans who were enslaved for generations in the U.S. Juneteenth will be a start.

We may not be individually racist but we are all witting or unwitting participants in a system of institutional racism where the schools too often fail to educate students about culturally vital events, like the official end of a system that enslaved millions of African Americans. It is a day that should be remembered by all Americans, not just blacks, because slavery was a foundational element of the nation and all white people bear the stain of slavery. Learning about the importance of Juneteenth is just a part of a much larger issue that is largely bereft in the public schools, understanding the African American story throughout American history.

I don’t think this lack of awareness is a sign of individual racism any more than I believe that never having heard of Krystallnacht makes one an anti-Semite. No doubt anti-Semitism plays a role in the institutional lack of attention generally paid to that cardinal moment in the history of Judaism. And like Juneteenth, understanding the importance of Krystallnacht is just as much part of understanding the history of a people that has contributed mightily to the U.S.

Other pivotal events that merit consideration as national holidays include but are not limited to:

The day in 1838 when President Martin Van Buren ordered armed troops to force Cherokees to give up and leave their land in Georgia, marching 1,200 miles resulting in more than 5,000 Cherokee deaths in a journey that is known as the Trail of Tears.

In 1527, Spanish explorer Cabeza De Vaca led an exploration of North America almost a century before the British founded Jamestown. De Vaca led a group mestizos, indigenous and Afro-descended people from the area today known as Mexico, setting roots deeper than other European explorers.

Poet, revolutionary and Cuban nationalist José Martí, who lived in New York City for four years, was one of Latin America’s greatest intellectuals, earning him a statue in front of Central Park in Manhattan.

In 1917, the U.S. extended citizenship To Puerto Ricans and shortly after, required military conscription for World War I.

We tend to pay attention to situations or events that affect our individual cultural identities and we have to do a better job to become aware and informed of events outside of our narrow, personal and often bigoted worlds. And while it may be understandable that people focus on events that effect their separate groups, it is no less hurtful and divisive that many white Americans are not aware of a day that commemorates the end of slavery. Understanding and honoring all the elements that make up the country can only make for a stronger, richer society.

For the record, Krystallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass, commemorates the pogroms carried out against Jews by Nazi paramilitary forces on Sept. 10, 1938. Rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland; more than 7,000 Jewish businesses were damaged or destroyed; and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps in what historians recognize as the opening salvo of what would become Nazi Germany’s “final solution” and the murder of 6 million Jews. So yes, Krystallnacht is a pivotal moment in the history of the Jewish people no less than Juneteenth represents the legal end to a system that enslaved African Americans for generations.

Juneteenth is celebrated each year on June 19. On that day in 1865, two months after the south surrendered to the north, ending the Civil War, Gordon Granger, a Union general, traveled to Galveston, Texas, to tell enslaved African-Americans that they were free, as a result of the end of the war and the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued more than two and a half years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln.

Current national holidays include New Year’s Day, the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Days that have been suggested but rejected as national holidays include Susan B. Anthony Day, Cesar Chavez Day, Malcolm X Day, Flag Day and Native Americans Day.

Juneteenth and Krystallanacht are two of many examples of how we are often ignorant of the customs and traditions and important moments in the lives of our neighbors who may be people of different cultures, religions and races. Recognizing and respecting events important to other cultures is a sign of respect and understanding that events like Juneteenth and Krystallnacht should be remembered by all of us.

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Phil Garber

Phil Garber

Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer