JUNETEENTH – What’s in a name?

Could the Americans have learned from the Jewish heritage?

(Author’s personal observation)

By Craig Snoyman

While South Africans were celebrating the heart-warming hoax of decuplets, the so-called “Tembisa 10”, the United States of America was midwifing its own birth.  With little advance notice, and starting labour on Tuesday 15 June, pushing through the birthing canals of the House and the Senate at great speed, the new-born was announced to the world on 17 June 2021.  President Biden, who confirmed the signs of life, signed it into law and held the birth-certificate up high for everybody to see. Although officially, its date of birth was declared as 19 June it was officially named “Juneteenth National Independence Day” and proudly touted to the nation. Joining a group of ten other siblings, it became America’s eleventh annual federal holiday. Named in honour of an event which happened on June 19, 1865 – or “Juneteenth” –  it recalls an incident where General Gordon Granger entered Galveston, Texas and announced that President Lincoln had freed the slaves almost three years earlier.

Usually, the creation of a national holiday is no easy task. Only four federal holidays had been added to the American calendar in the last one hundred years before this one. There had previously been several attempts to introduce a “Native American Day”, all of them unsuccessful. As a kind of substitute, a cultural “Native American Week” was introduced. Proposals for the introduction of new holidays is all about politics – the politics of identity, the politics of voting, the politics of affiliation, the politics of ethnicity, the politics of patriotism, even the politics of sport.  Yet somewhere amongst all of this congested political melee, Juneteenth National Independence Day – the fastest tracked Federal holiday ever- became law. If you were outside the USA, you might have missed it. While it was happening, it didn’t gather too much attention in the States either.

Juneteenth was initially only a specifically Texan celebration. There were other Emancipation Day celebrations commemorating the freedom from slavery. African Americans in South Carolina and Georgia had also been holding their own Emancipation Day programs but chose the date of January 1. Both groups memorialised the struggles of their people and sought to inspire upliftment in honouring those emancipated slaves. Why did the Carolinians and Georgians celebrate on 1 January? Simple, they followed historical fact. It was on 1 January 1863, that President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all persons held as slaves were immediately free.  The Texans were only apparently officially informed of the Emancipation when Granger finally reached Texas on 19 June 1865. Ironically, notwithstanding the announcement, most of the slaves were only freed after the cotton harvest was completed, some months later.    The event of the announcement was thereafter commemorated annually mostly by the former slave, who combined the words “June 19th” into “Juneteenth”. As the Civil War became more distant, Juneteenth and Emancipation Day celebrations became less prominent, almost fading into obscurity until there was a cultural revival of Juneteenth, starting in Texas, in the 1970’s.

Jews also have also created their own holidays or “chags”.   When looking at the origins of these festivals, one can see the historic events which gave rise to the festivals. Each one of these Jewish holidays has a unified meaning for its followers. The aim of each holiday is to commemorate and remember the national, religious and world view identity of the Jews. The ideological connection between the Jewish holidays and with their national and cultural values is apparent. Jewish holidays, while established thousands of years ago, and grounded in the Torah, have not lost their relevance today. While the holidays may have been modified, they still continue to be celebrated with the same joy, unity, and cohesion as in ancient times.

It is not difficult to see how these Jewish holidays were created. It is, however, difficult to imagine that the crossing of the Red Sea could  have been celebrated  on the day when Jethro announced to Moses that  he and his kinsmen has  heard about the event and not on the date that the Children of Israel actually walked through the water on dry land. Similarly, that the “international day of independence” could fall on the day that Moses brought down the second set of tablets, rather than when Mount Sinai smoked and thundered and a Divine covenant was created, would seem absurd. Equally preposterous would have been for all the Children of Israel to be ordered to observe a second Pesach simply because some of them were impure for the first celebration and they could not participate.

Exodus from Egypt

But this is what has happened with Juneteenth!

It celebrates an announcement made to the slaves of Texas, telling them that they should have been freed about three years before they heard the announcement. However, the real problem is not the timing or to whom it was said, it’s that the nature of Juneteenth doesn’t support the ideals expected of a holiday.  It doesn’t support unity or nationalism or patriotism. There is also an existing division amongst the ethnic groups celebrating the liberation of the slaves about the date as to when emancipation should be commemorated. It is a very sectarian holiday. On the face of it, it should be a cultural event celebrated by Texans and enjoyed by anyone who wants to participate, much like Native American Week. Both the name and its significance had lost their relevance until its re-introduction about one hundred years after it had faded into virtual insignificance. Even then, it was re-introduced as a cultural event and not a political event! Historically, American slaves were emancipated when Lincoln’s Proclamation was issued, not when the slaves heard about it, or even when they were physically liberated. Emancipation took place on 1 January 1863, in the midst of a civil war. It was Winston Churchill who said that a nation that forgets its history has no future.  Can the rewriting of a nation’s past lead to different future?

President Joe Biden signs the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, June 17, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)AP

Maybe this is all hair-splitting. After all, 48 states recognised Juneteenth as a state holiday before it became a federal holiday. But they recognised “Juneteenth”; they did not recognise  “Juneteenth National Independence Day”. This federal holiday embodies neither Nation nor Independence.  A re-announcement of emancipation that has already been throughout the rest of the country to a territorial group of people who believed that they are slaves when they are not really slaves, is not  a national event. By legislating that Juneteenth is an Independence Day when it was not and when there is already a nationally celebrated Independence Day on 4 July is divisive and confusing. When an event commemorates an occasion affecting a small ethnic group is made a national occasion it is can only serve to  encourage  fragmentation  and factionalism instead of nationalism and patriotism. This application of a mixed ideological agenda at this time in America’s history does not advance its national aims. In the politically dismembering climate that exists today one must ask whether this was not just a short-term advancement of the non-inclusive political agenda of “Black Lives Matter”.

Another  Federal holiday, Christopher Columbus Day, may be the harbinger of the trouble that Juneteenth National Independence Day may bring. Christopher Columbus Day was recognised by 45 states  before it became a federal holiday in 1968. Congress said  that the nation was honouring the courage and determination which enabled generations of immigrants from many nations to find freedom and opportunity in America.  South Dakota then objected to this view. It has called that holiday  “Native American Day” since 1990.  In 2014 , the Seattle City Council followed South Dakota’s lead and unanimously voted to rename Columbus Day “Indigenous People’s Day”.

Will the issues about  Juneteenth National Independence Day be more pervasive and more damaging? There are already certain groups  which have stated that they will not recognise it. Other militant groups will no doubt ensure the holiday receives its due recognition (or notoriety). Recognising the holiday as a National Independence Day brings with it the underlying inference of  the currently trending “existing systemic racism” and all the baggage attached to it. Is it unrealistic  to expect the “colonial Independence” of 4 July comes under further attack, bearing in mind the inroads into education of the 1619 project?  Will one see  the Juneteenth flag  waving, contests pride of place with  the Stars and Stripes? It also becomes quite feasible that other  existing federal holidays will now be subjected to attack due to their historical, but colonial origins. There is already a struggle to claim the foundations of American democracy, this holiday is only going to add to that struggle.  And by calling it a National Independence Day, it opens the door for  claims of  for  reparations for slavery.   With the stoke of a pen, has the nation unwittingly placed itself  back  into a civil-war, even if this is not yet visible?

Perhaps, in the same way that there is precedent as to how the Sanhedrin interpreted Zechariah’s word to eliminate certain fast days, the US government will not feel constricted to re-examine certain Federal holidays and their names. While one must always remember  and celebrate the abolition of slavery (were we not once  slaves as well?), one wonders if a holiday called Juneteenth National Independence Day  is the appropriate step in advancing an agenda of  national patriotism and common identity.

So while some South Africans celebrated hoax-babies on Saturday 19 June 2021, and some Americans celebrated Saturday 19 June 2021 as Juneteenth National Independence Day, some of us  also celebrated Saturday 19 June 2021 as ….. Shabbat.



About the writer:

Craig Snoyman is a practising advocate in South Africa.





While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

2 thoughts on “JUNETEENTH – What’s in a name?

  1. Frederick Douglass dealt with this issue far more articulately than your writer, way back in 1852. Douglass made the connection between the 4th of July to political freedom of the Jews “ This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day “
    He also clearly shows why your writer’s opinion is wrong! He spoke of the relationship between the American slave and the 4th of July. He said it was a day that reveals to the American slave “more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour” Juneteenth National Independence Day was long overdue

    1. Your point is well made. Douglass, however, gave that speech some10 years prior to the General emancipation of the slaves. Others such as martin Luther King- notably in his “Three Evils” speech- along with Thurgood Marshall, John Lewis, and many others, have pointed to unequal divisions in American society. But isn’t that the point, “Juneteenth National Independence Day” is serving to highlight the divisions, rather than reconciliation of history and a country’s united democracy?

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