Juneteenth, observed June 19 each year, has a long history of commemoration among African Americans in the United States. It has been observed by Black people in Galveston, Texas and the immediate surrounding area for generations. But within the past few years, Juneteenth has become a national Black holiday. This year, I have seen advertisements for Juneteenth merchandise, Juneteenth celebrations, and Juneteenth marketing from major corporations and institutions. Why is this small commemoration that was lost from mainstream history now becoming such a big deal in the media? I offer a few observations that I believe are making Juneteenth the new national Black summer holiday.
Juneteenth commemorates the day when former slaves in Galveston received the news that they had been freed after the U.S. Civil War on June 19, 1865. President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in rebelling states under Confederate control two years prior, in 1863. The Union Army won the Civil War, making that action permanent, and Congress officially freed all slaves through the thirteenth amendment in January of 1865. But because Texas was the westernmost former Confederate territory and Galveston an island in the far south of the state, it took a long time to bring the news to the Union Army from the battlefields in the southeastern United States of America. The soldiers shared the news that the over 250,000 formerly-enslaved Africans in the state of Texas were free on Juneteenth. As a result, to the Black community starting in Texas and spreading over the decades, Juneteenth became a second Independence Day for African Americans–the day that the last slaves received freedom. But why is Juneteenth going viral now when it wasn’t even on most Americans’ radar a decade ago?
Black Pride Is Making A Resurgence
In the post-Obama era, it became clear that a backlash of White supremacy would continue to expose racism at the individual and systemic levels across the nation. While literal chants of White power became more prevalent in cities across the United States, African Americans who had in many cases taken a position of assimilation were faced with a choice to feel uncomfortable and complicit with the societal racism around them or respond with messages and attitudes of Black empowerment and self-determination.
This was, of course, not a new choice or a new phenomenon. There was a similar dynamic of racial tension after WWI that gave birth to the Red Summer of 1919, the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, and the resurgence of the KKK codified in the film Birth of A Nation. In response, the Harlem Renaissance provided a focus of Black empowerment and self-determination in the midst of the Great Migration. This happened again during the Black power movement after the hope of the Civil Rights era ended in Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X’s assassinations, as White Americans pushed back against integration around the nation. In response, African Americans embraced Black power, which fueled reinvestment in Black communities, the creation of Black political parties, and the beginning of Black theologies. In our current historical moment, the Black disengagement from White systems has looked like reinvestment in HBCUs, the proliferation of Black businesses, and Black artists creating Afro-centric art and entertainment. It has become meaningful to be “Black Black” again, and to embrace African American identity in every layer of culture. Juneteenth has become a national way to celebrate Black Identity at the moment when the COVID-19 pandemic is becoming manageable and society is opening back up.
Black Lives Matter Is Mainstream
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the global pandemic that gave it context, Americans were forced to pay attention to the ongoing racism and trauma that Black people face on a daily basis. The Black Lives Matter movement, which began in 2015 after the killing of Michael Brown by police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, has reached mainstream status in a remarkably short time as a result of mass organizing, social media, and the focus created by the pandemic. This was now most evident in the outcry of support for Black Lives Matter in mainstream sports, business, and government during the summer of 2020 after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor–which served as major catalysts for hundreds of non-violent protests on behalf of Black lives globally. People of every background across racial lines came together to protest the unjust treatment of Black Americans. As major corporations and politicians became aware of the demographic and economic trends supporting Black Lives Matter and more and more stories of black people losing their lives at the hands of police and vigilantes came to light, a flurry of companies and politicians rushed to voice their support in an election year where police brutality and racism became major topics of conversation.
That political and socioeconomic force has continued in the sometimes unbelievable turnarounds of institutions that now publicly voice support against racism and for Black Americans. With the demographic winds in favor of supporting Black lives and billions of dollars to be made in voicing support, Juneteenth has provided another opportunity for institutions to be caught on the right side of history and the economy.
Black Institutions Are Promoting It
Juneteenth has become a reason for celebration and remembrance for Black institutions around the country, most notably Black churches. Black churches and denominations who have lived under the specter of White evangelicalism have begun to disentangle themselves from White Christianity in the last few years Because of the political and cultural loyalty to racism many White evangelical personalities and institutions have shown, reclaiming Blackness while being Christian has become more pronounced. Black Churches are hosting Juneteenth panels, celebrations, festivals, and even economic empowerment events. Friendship West Baptist Church outside of Dallas has facilitated weeks of events remembering the Tulsa Massacre and now celebrating Juneteenth. Black churches are finding creative ways to come together virtually, outside, in hybrid ways, or returning to in-person worship after the pandemic. Black companies, schools, and organizations are finding key events to gather and build engagement and morale as recovery from the pandemic continues. Juneteenth has provided the perfect summer outlet for Black institutions to promote events and gatherings affirming their African American heritage.
Black institutions now empowered by social media are still the best at convening Black people across the country. Juneteenth, which celebrates the freedom of all Black people from slavery, has become an opportunity to celebrate the freedom of all Black people to enjoy ourselves and determine our direction after the pandemic.
Juneteenth may not have been on the minds of most Americans a decade ago, but it is in the mainstream media and the minds of the masses today. The transformation from commemoration and celebration for formerly enslaved Africans to a national holiday for Black folks has been more than a century in the making. The recent interest has been driven by cultural, economic, political, and social factors; but there is a spiritual reformation happening in the midst. Juneteenth has provided an opportunity for Black people to celebrate intentional Blackness in their faith expressions. And as a Black man in America, I am glad more people are saying out loud “I’m Black, free, and proud.”
The Black church may have created a role that warrants reconsideration.
I want to pose a challenge to all of our readers. I’ll give $100 to the first person that can find the phrase First Lady or First Gentleman in Scripture as it pertains to the Church. If my wife knew I made this promise, she’d probably have me sleeping on the couch tonight. But I’m just that confident it doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as a First Lady or First Gentleman when it comes to the Word of God. They are fabricated, idealistic titles that have invaded Black church culture. I’ve written previously about my disgust with the term on A&E’s show “The Sisterhood”, which closely followed the lives of a group of women who deemed themselves First Ladies. But this week, I think it turned into some righteous indignation (which is a good thing, I think). It’s table turning time.
But let me start with a brief history lesson. The African American pastor has, as long as I can remember, always held a distinguished position in the Black community. In my hometown, you can talk about Black teachers, Black politicians, and other Black public figures. But you bet no dare “put your mouth” on the man of God. There’s that “Touch not mine anointed…” (see Psalm 105:15) thing going on there (a passage of Scripture that’s butchered from a contextual standpoint, by the way). The Black pastor enjoys certain privilege in the Black community. He has a nice parking space at the church, drives a nice vehicle (used to be a Cadillac), and gets fed well.
Enter the first lady. Because of the royal treatment of the black pastor, many of their wives benefit from fact that they are married to the shepherd of the church. Over the years, in the Black church, she has come to be known as the First Lady. As with any title, there are certain privileges that accompany the role of First Lady. Reserved seating is a no brainer. In some instances, she sits in the pulpit with her husband, while in other instances she is front and center in the pews. Depending on your context, an oversized hat may be involved. In that setting, nobody, I mean nobody, wears a hat larger than the church’s First Lady. That’s disrespectful. Regardless of context, certain things are expected of a First Lady. She’s to be supportive, highly visible, elegant, a prayer warrior, and, where children are involved, a great mother. That list is by no means exhaustive, but it gives you an idea of how Black culture has carved out a clearly defined role for preacher’s wives.
Yesterday I saw something related to the First Lady concept appear in my Facebook Timeline (because Facebook Timelines are basically our news sources these days). I checked out this picture of a pastor celebrating his third anniversary with his spouse. Honestly, my first thought was, “Is this real?” So I did what any sensible, intelligent person would have done. I googled the church. Sure enough, the church existed and the Pastor and his spouse just celebrated their third anniversary. The wording on the original flyer is what got my attention. The pastor’s spouse was referred to as the “1st Gentleman” of the church.
If you haven’t already figured it out, this pastor has a partner in a same-sex relationship. As such, that partner has embraced the role traditionally seen in the Black church in the context of heterosexual marriages—The First Gentleman. And this is not an anomalous occurrence. There are other First Ladies and Gentlemen out there in same-sex marriages helping lead churches. Look, I’m not here to argue the merits of same-sex marriages. That screams red herring and will distract from the main point I’m making here. Well maybe I will say a few words. First, there’s no scriptural support for same-sex marriages and, as a minister, I wouldn’t officiate a wedding involving one. As “radically inclusive” as we make Jesus out to be, Scripture is very clear about this issue. The fact that Jesus never condemned same-sex marriages in Scripture doesn’t automatically mean He condones the behavior. There are no specific teachings from Jesus or “red letter” passages on bestiality, pedophilia, or polygamy either. And no, I’m not making a direct comparison between those activities and same-sex marriages. I’m just saying that absence of teaching doesn’t mean that Jesus would condone certain human behavior. Trust me, this is huge and is something the Black church has to process and deal with in the coming years. According to a site dedicated to the community, there’s at least 7,100 documented gay-affirming churches. Some of them are led by pastors who themselves are in same-sex relationships. So there’s an active subculture in the Christian faith that has adopted the practices of the Black church. Among those practices is the adoption of our church leadership structure—including First Ladies (and now First Gentlemen).
But when folks adopt practices that are flawed in the first instance, I think the best approach here is the address those practices in their original context. So the main point I want to make here is that the Black church can’t keep hijacking cultural practices and slapping them in the church setting without seriously considering if we’re missing the mark. Can we eulogize the terms First Lady/First Gentlemen already? Like, for real, for real. Yes, 1 John address the “elect lady“. But scholars can’t even agree if the author is addressing a female leader in the church or the church as a body (Scripture often uses feminine terms to describe the church). Either way, there’s NO WAY we should use this text to excuse our canonization of First Ladies or First Gentlemen when it comes to church practice. Part of the reason we have so many problems in the black church is because we covout titles. That’s the antithesis of the Gospel message. Paul tells us in Philippians 2 that Christ himself took on the form of a servant. Paul, himself, hated titles (see Philippians 3). James, Jesus’ own brother (who could have plugged that fact in his letter), calls himself a term most Christians wore as a badge of honor in the first century—a servant. Does the New Testament address bishops, elders, deacons, and other leaders? Of course it does. But are we faithful to Scripture when we create our own structures, slapping titles on folks that don’t exhibit the accompanying fruit (oops, did I just say that)? Maybe, we should be less worried about titles and degrees and more concerned about worship on our knees. Many in the black community joked about worship-like atmosphere in the white smoke announcement of the Pope this week, but in reality we go to churches and worship our leadership weekly—including the First Lady and First Gentleman. The harsh reality is that if we don’t seriously think about making changes our places of worship will become museums with artifacts rather than places of transformation and change. And that’s a scary thought.
Depending on whom you ask, the question of what most defines the African American community varies. Some will point to strides made toward racial integration. Others will point to the establishment of our own culture, traditions, and institutions that distinguish us from other races. And depending on whom you engage in this debate, most will admit, there are significant cultural and class divisions among African Americans. Creating a sense of community among African Americans is challenging, but imagine attempting this when the prevalent identifier was slavery.
In his book A Nation Within A Nation: Organizing African American Communities Before the Civil War, scholar John Ernest offers an insightful view of how African Americans to establish their identities before the civil war. This is a unique view since most accounts of this time in history focus on how the Civil War changed our status and sense of community. Ernest presents a view of the oft-overlooked organizations that were pushing for the establishment of an African American community well before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Ernest, a professor of American literature at West Virginia University, presents a historical account of how five types of social organizations — the church, Masonic lodges, conventions, schools, and the media/press — got their start. He traces how each attempted to meet the unique needs of the African American community.
One of Ernest’s most striking observations is that our forefathers held two key approaches on how the establishment of community should be accomplished. Some believed that African Americans should fight to assimilate into the majority community, and that finding acceptance there was the ultimate measure of progress. Others, smarting from their experiences with severe racism, believed that creating a new community — i.e., a nation within a nation — was the best approach.
What’s fascinating to consider is that the African American is still divided along those lines. What’s more, the tension between those two mindsets still polarizes our community. Those who fight to be accepted among the majority, which in our time is still white Americans, are often accused of being disloyal to their heritage. Those who fight to establish their own culture are often accused of being separatist, or in the most severe cases racists themselves.
Ernest also highlights the painful fact that from our earliest history, oppression was the most common connection among most African Americans. Even free African Americans faced oppression, opposition, and racism. Many of the organizations formed during that time were built on freedom from that oppression.
A Nation Within a Nation, although focused on the past, whispers to our current conditions. What would our culture be like if the oppression of our ancestors was removed from our current community? How would we then define ourselves? This book made me wonder if a common denominator could ever be found for African Americans. It also made me wonder about the efficiency of trying to define ourselves by a single idea.
But don’t expect answers to those questions in this book. Ernest writes the book in true historian style, only presenting information without his personal beliefs. His writing has the density of academia, so this is not a quick read. In my opinion, this is the best approach. So much our history has been interpreted for us by pop culture or presented in snapshots. It’s refreshing to be able to read such rich history without a filter and with all the weightiness it deserves.
I think the most enjoyable aspect of this book is the discussion that has arisen among those in my African American community. This is a topic that needs to be revisited, and A Nation Within a Nation provides a great springboard for beginning that important dialogue.