Juneteenth is an invitation to reflect, educate, and celebrate American freedoms while advocating for advances that uplift everyone.
Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when Union Major General Gordon Granger proclaimed the freedom of 250,000 enslaved people under the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation that President Lincoln issued 2 years earlier. In 2021, it became a federal holiday that is commemorated each year on June 19 — though Black communities nationwide have honored Juneteenth since its inception through family and neighborhood gatherings.
This holiday holds diverse meanings for those who celebrate it.
"Our family discusses Juneteenth as a historical fact, what it means to be an American, and what it means to accept America’s benefits and hardships," says Darius Hicks, the creator, producer, and cohost of the podcast, While Black.
Juneteenth offers us all an opportunity to unite around its rich traditions during the month of June and throughout the year. Read on to learn more about how to celebrate Juneteenth in a way that appropriately honors Black history and heritage.
Why Commemorate Juneteenth?
Like many holidays, Juneteenth evokes complex emotions. For example, Hicks' family is one of two Black families living in a suburban community north of Atlanta, and while their Homeowners' Association places American flags underneath every mailbox in the neighborhood on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, there is no communal recognition or celebration of Juneteenth, Hicks says.
"I struggle with this every year," he says. "We weren’t free on the Fourth of July. But I am an American. I embrace this country’s benefits and flaws, and I want to make this country better."
Despite the nation’s political and social divisions, Juneteenth is still worthy of celebrating, says Tausha Orakwue, a healthcare consultant in Austin, Texas. The city of Austin holds Juneteenth activities such as art exhibits, cultural events, and keynote speakers with the aim of both celebrating the Black community and enlightening the public about this crucial part of American history.
"Juneteenth is about Black joy," Orakwue says. "Some people may take the day off to rest while others use the holiday to hang out with people and have a good time. We’re so busy and overloaded. It’s time to have fun and celebrate."
Civic education is embedded in Juneteenth commemorations throughout the country. In Raleigh, North Carolina, Juneteenth activities include tours of historically Black neighborhoods and landmarks, as well as the opening of the first Black-owned children’s bookstore in the area, says Carmen Wimberley Cauthen. She is a Black historian and author of the award-winning book, Historic Black Neighborhoods of Raleigh.
"There are so many parts of our history that haven’t been told," Cauthen says. "Our community needs to know who we are and what our ancestors did. But we can’t tell it if we don’t know it."
Explore Black American Foodways
Education about the Black American experience during Juneteenth can be found around the dinner table, too. Many local Black-owned restaurants host special dinners and events that pay homage to Black American foodways.
"Food is important to Black celebrations because it’s how we build bonds and break barriers," says Nik Fields, the owner of Chic Chef 77, which is the first Black-owned wine bar in Tempe, Arizona.
Traditional "soul food" such as fried chicken, collard greens, watermelon, and red velvet cake are staples in many Black communities and have been part of the American gastronomic experience since the 1800s. Fried chicken and watermelon in particular were among the first foods that Black Americans cultivated upon emancipation because they were cheap and easy to produce. Unfortunately, those same foods have also been used throughout time to stereotype and shame Black Americans.
Fields is now reclaiming these foods as important elements of American foodways. This year, she is hosting a Juneteenth event called "Champagne, Chicken and Watermelon: A Celebration of Freedom." For this occasion, she is making a fried chicken dish topped with a watermelon glaze.
"It’s a universal celebration, not only for Black people, but for everyone," Fields says. "Food is a universal love language. It’s how we grieve and celebrate."
Discover Your Heritage
Those interested in exploring their family history can also honor Juneteenth by taking the AfricanAncestry.com DNA test. AfricanAncestry.com is a pioneering, Black-owned genetic ancestry company whose focus is people of African descent. The company offers products that can help trace your matrilineal and patrilineal lines.
"When you make the decision to trace your ancestry to the continent of Africa, you’ve taken a huge step towards freedom," says Dr. Gina Paige, AfricanAncestry.com president and cofounder.
Upon purchasing the kit, you swab the inside of your cheek to collect a DNA sample and mail it to the company’s laboratory for analysis. You can log into your private account once your results are ready. There, you’ll see your mother or father’s African country and ethnic group of origin.
"Juneteenth celebrates our notification of freedom," Paige says. "When you know where you’re from, you react to life’s challenges more effectively because you have restored the foundation of your identity."
Move Beyond the Moment
Education, activism, unearthing family stories, and embracing your identity are all ways we can live Juneteenth’s lessons throughout the year, our experts say.
For example, while the pain and violence many Black communities face may dominate public conversation, devotion to self-determination is also a part of the Black American heritage and experience, Hicks says.
"Juneteenth is about freedom," he says. "It is one day, one moment in time. But there are 364 other days of the year that we need to further embrace and demand freedom. We should be learning and understanding every lever we can pull to ensure the freedom we learned about on Juneteenth becomes a reality throughout the year."
Winner of the New York Times Award for Outstanding Journalism, Kerra Bolton has explored how communities navigate growth and change for 25 years. Her work has covered the impact of U.S. immigration on small Mexican towns, a hospital in rural South Africa dealing with an AIDS crisis post-apartheid, and the rebuilding of a Honduran village after a hurricane ravaged the region. Kerra spends her time in the Mexican Caribbean, learning to swim, dive, and map sunken slave ships. She is also the author of the book Restorative Communities: From Conflict to Conversation.