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.”
In the weeks and days leading up to Christmas, the average Christian spends a lot of money, time, and energy preparing for the holiday. While I’ve always considered that time of year to be a very special one, I’ve often wondered why we don’t elevate Easter–or Resurrection Sunday, to use the name that many believers prefer–to the same level. After all, didn’t Jesus come into the world for the very purpose of suffering, dying, and rising again to demonstrate His love and give us new life?
So why don’t we celebrate the day Jesus arose from the dead the way we celebrate the day He came into the world? Well, if I interviewed every believer I know, I’d receive a multitude of opinions. For example, some men and women of faith would say it’s because Resurrection Sunday is more somber than Christmas. When these Christians think about the horrific thing that was done to Jesus to save our souls, they can’t help but be sad. They don’t like thinking–or talking about–the demise of any human being, let alone the torture and death of the One they call Savior. So, while they honor the day Jesus was resurrected, they aren’t inspired to engage in the same type of festivities as the ones they deem appropriate for Christmas.
For other Christians, the difference in how they celebrate these two holidays stems from the fact that they aren’t constantly being courted by retailers that promise to provide just what they need to have a perfect holiday. In other words, as Resurrection Sunday approaches, they don’t feel the same kind of pressure or obligation to buy the right presents or hang the prettiest decorations. So, they don’t do anything special for the holiday. Still others would probably say that it’s simply because, other than Passion Plays or Sunday school programs put on at churches, there just aren’t that many religious traditions associated with the holiday.
But does it have to be this way? Couldn’t we begin today to create our own family traditions that recognize the fact that Jesus kept His promise that He’d die and then, on the third day, be alive again? Isn’t that very fact pivotal to our Christian faith? Isn’t that reason enough for a celebration or, even better, kicking off certain lifestyle changes that will last long after the holiday has come and gone?
Holiday traditions have a wonderful way of ushering in greater spiritual awareness and a renewed commitment to one’s faith. They can provide us with opportunities to fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as share our faith with non-believers. And they can also help us make our faith more tangible in the eyes of our impressionable children.
One way to do this is to set aside time to pray and read God’s Word every day, particularly reflecting on verses that remind us of His Son’s sacrificial love for us. Among the verses you may want to read and meditate on are the following ones: John 3:16; Romans 10:9; Luke 19:10; Romans 5:8; and I John 4:7-10. Don’t feel as though you have to do this alone. Invite your spouse, a prayer partner and even your children to join you. If you already set aside time for devotions, you may want to use the time to not only read them but memorize them. That way, they’ll not just be counted among the many that you perused this year, but listed among those that meant enough to you that you chose to engrave them into your heart and mind.
Reaching out to others during this time is another way to take your appreciation of the holiday to new level. Some people do this by inviting unsaved relatives, friends, or neighbors to go to church with them. Others may opt to host an event–such as a brunch, dinner party, movie night, or even a dessert party–in their home for relatives and friends who appreciate Christian fellowship as much as they do. In addition, those that love giving presents on holidays could consider making homemade gifts–such as sugar cookies made into shapes representative of various components of the Gospel message (e.g., a cross, sheep, stars, etc.)–or purchasing small gifts at their local Christian bookstore.
You also could fill your home, office, and car with sights and sounds that are symbolic of Christ’s life. Little figurines displayed on mantles or tables in your home, as well as small ornaments, hung on bedposts, doorknobs, or even your car’s rear-view mirror could serve as perfect reminders of what God did for us through His Son. If you’ve been thinking about incorporating more faith-based forms of entertainment into your life and home, this is the perfect time to start. Check your local library, video rental store, or favorite bookstore for inspirational titles and schedule a few movie nights. And don’t forget to set aside time to be blessed by the ministry of music, whether you enjoy the gospel, contemporary Christian, holy hip-hop, or sacred jazz. Let it play softly in the background while eating dinner with your family, as you complete chores, and as you’re commuting to and from various places.
Regardless of which traditions you decide to infuse into your life in the coming weeks, what’s important is that you hold on to why you’re adding them. Celebrate the good news of Easter unabashedly so that you, your loved ones, and anyone who crosses your path will have the opportunity to experience a renewed appreciation for Resurrection Sunday and all that it symbolizes for God’s children.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” – Luke 2:8-14
This holiday season, we’ll once again listen to preachers in pulpits, children in angel and shepherd costumes, and animated characters on TV recite those words from Luke 2 proclaiming the miracle of Christmas. And the Bible translation we’ll most likely be hearing will be the King James Version, which marks its 400th anniversary this year.
Out of the countless modern translations of the Bible now available to readers, none of them has surpassed the popularity of the King James Version. In fact, a recent survey by the American Bible Society found that 45 percent of regular Bible readers still use the King James Version.
Commissioned by England’s King James I in 1604 and finally published in 1611, the KJV is still recognized as “the authorized version.” A conference of churchmen in 1604 had proposed the new translation on the basis that existing translations “were corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the original [Hebrew and Greek text].”
That same year, the Protestant king approved a list of 54 prospective revisers, from which 47 translators were selected to work. They were divided into six committees, working separately at Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge. Committees are typically accused of compromising their products. In this case, the joint translation was superior to the work of any previous translator.
By the time the King James Version appeared, there were vernacular translations of the Bible circulating in Protestant and Catholic Europe. But in England, King Henry VIII, styling himself as head of the church, banned and burned copies of the Bible translated by William Tyndale, fearing that an accessible Bible would make England “a nation of priests,” according to William Tyndale: A Biography by David Daniell.
For his trouble, Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536.
Eventually Henry softened his objections, allowing one Bible in each of England’s churches. Later, King James believed that an accessible Bible might reconcile citizens of different religious persuasions, so he authorized the translation that bears his name. Ironically, its translators incorporated Tyndale’s scholarship.
The new translation appeared during the lifetime of William Shakespeare and John Donne, enhancing not only Christian revelation but English culture and expression. To this day its text is considered poetic. Familiar English expressions come from the King James Version, including “lamb to the slaughter,” “skin of our teeth” and “chariots of fire.” It is widely credited with providing Protestant churches with a unified sacred text.
The King James Version of the Bible also remains the translation of choice among African American Christians. “Because so many people are familiar with the language and poetic elegance of the KJV Bible, I tend to use it in situations calling for pastoral comfort and consolation,” says Cheryl J. Sanders, senior pastor of Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C., and professor of Christian Ethics at Howard University. “The KJV is not merely quoted in the prayers, songs, and sermons of the African American churches — this biblical language and imagery flows from the hearts and lives of believers at prayer, in praise, and in prophetic ministry.”
William Pannell, senior professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, believes the KJV provides a type of spiritual and social anchor for black churches today. “The staying power of the King James Version may be understood by the ongoing need for security and certainty, especially among older church members. In a society where change seems to be constant, and worship styles move further away from recognizable sights and sounds, the language of the KJV is a welcome reminder that not everything is up for grabs.”
Jamal-Dominique Hopkins, associate professor of biblical studies at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, says the KJV’s prophetic importance cannot be underestimated, even though it may no longer be the most accurate of translations. “As a 17th century translation, the King James Version does not have the benefit of having relied upon the most significant manuscript finds of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century,” he explains. “This, however, does not diminish or deter the brilliance and power of the Holy Spirit in its effective use over the last 400 years. The KJV has played a part in the conversion of souls, the healing of the afflicted, the liberating of the oppressed, and has been a testament to God’s unwavering truth.”
Hopkins thinks the KJV’s enduring popularity with black Christians also reflects the African American tradition’s affinity for colorful and dynamic forms of expression. “In a positive way, we as a people are enamored with the theatrical. Theatrical forms, as a genre of cultural expression, permeate throughout the African Diaspora; this plays itself out in our music, our dialog, our literature, and our fashion — and these subsequently take center stage within many of our churches. The poetic 17th-century lingua franca of the KJV rhythmically resonates with our experience. Its language and phrasing are anything but dull.”
What translation of the Bible will you be reading this Christmas?
After 400 years, for many of us those King James angels will still be bringing “good tidings of great joy,” as they tell us exactly where to find that “babe wrapped in swaddling clothes.”
Portions of this article were reprinted from a Scripps Howard News Service column by David Yount, used through arrangement with the Newscom wire service.