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Juneteenth.

It’s the holiday commemorating June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army announced in Galveston, Texas that the last of the enslaved African Americans had been freed. With this announcement, slavery was officially over as a brutal institution in all of the United States, and the news came to this rural corner of Texas 2 ½ years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, two months after the Confederacy surrendered and the president was assassinated.

An early celebration of Emancipation Day (Juneteenth) in Texas on June 19, 1900. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Austin History Center/Austin Public Library

Juneteenth — also known as Liberation Day, Jubilee Day and Emancipation Day — has been in the news this week. The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill Tuesday making Juneteenth a federal holiday (a rare unanimous vote for this Senate), and the House of Representatives easily passed it on Wednesday. On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed it into law, making it the first federal holiday to be passed since 1983 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day). Federal employees are expected to get Friday off, since Juneteenth falls on a Saturday.

With all the references to Juneteenth lately, it’s worth taking a look at Juneteenth in the popular culture. It’s not a new holiday. It’s been celebrated in America, particularly in Texas, since 1866, one year after the first Juneteenth.

Some Juneteenth cultural references worth examining further include:

  • “On Juneteenth,” a nonfiction book by Annette Gordon-Reed, a Harvard professor and best-selling historian. “On Juneteenth” was published May 4 by Liveright Publishing, a division of W.W. Norton & Co.  
  • “Juneteenth” the novel by Ralph Ellison, published posthumously in 1999 and revised this year.
  • “Miss Juneteenth,” a 2020 independent film written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples.
  • “Freedom in Full Bloom: A Juneteenth Celebration” at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. It starts today and continues Saturday, on the actual Juneteenth.

‘On Juneteenth’

The cover of “On Juneteenth,” a history of the holiday with personal anecdotes by Harvard scholar Annette Gordon-Reed. Credit: Image courtesy of Liveright/W.W. Norton & Co.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed delves into the history of Juneteenth in her 152-page book, “On Juneteenth.” In this rather slim volume, she mixes the personal with the political and historical, providing insightful anecdotes of growing up in Conroe, Texas and other parts of the Lone Star State.

While the author reflects on Juneteenth’s resonance for the country at large, this book is deeply rooted in Texas. It’s also an example of some really good, clear, accessible history writing, proving that books about history don’t have to be dull.

She seems to have a deep interest in Esteban, an African slave to a Spanish nobleman, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza. Esteban, also known as Estevancio or Mustafa Azemmouri, was one of the first Black men to set foot in North America, and is often referred to as “the first great African man in America.”

In “On Juneteenth,” Gordon-Reed provides details of Esteban’s relations with Texas territory and his early explorations there.

But Esteban wasn’t limited to Texas. In “Cities of Gold” by Douglas Preston and other texts, we learn that Esteban traveled in Florida and throughout the Southwest, including Nuevo Mexico (what’s now New Mexico) and the North American Pueblo lands.  

Annette Gordon-Reed is the author of “On Juneteenth,” published in May by Liveright Publishing. Credit: Photo by Tony Rinaldo, courtesy of Liveright/W.W. Norton & Co.

Esteban was a messenger for the Spanish consquistadors. He was killed at Hawikuh, near Zuni Pueblo. The Zuni people kept him alive for three days and talked to him; ultimately they decided they didn’t like whom or what he represented, which was the Spanish, white men and colonization. They didn’t like that message. They may have killed him to send a message. But please, as we say in journalism, don’t kill the messenger.

“On Juneteenth” also provides slices of Americana, as seen through the eyes of a young, intellectually gifted yet still innocent Black girl growing up in white-dominant Texas. Gordon-Reed’s style is very lucid and very straightforward. She also weaves connections between Juneteenth and the Fourth of July, which most Americans probably don’t know about. Juneteenth is the first celebration of freedom, followed by the one typically marked by abundant displays of fireworks. 

“On Juneteenth” is an excellent read for anyone who wants to learn more about the holiday and its history, as well as anyone interested in Texas from its 1836 independence from Mexico to the present. It would be appropriate for fifth graders and older.  

‘Juneteenth’

Ralph Ellison emerged as one of America’s literary giants after the publication of his first novel, “Invisible Man,” in 1952. That Black bildungsroman (coming of age story) won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953.

The cover of the 2021 edition of “Juneteenth,” a novel by Ralph Ellison, which contains a new preface and introduction. Credit: Image courtesy of Vintage & Anchor Books

Reports say Ellison started writing “Juneteenth” in or around 1954. In 1967, he claimed that his original manuscript was destroyed in a house fire. However, he later admitted to critic Nathan Scott that he still “fortunately had a full copy “ of all his writing after the fire.

Anyway, at the time of his death, Ellison had written more than 2,000 pages and never actually finished the novel. After Ellison’s death, scholar John F. Callahan was named the late author’s literary executor, and he was pressured to release the novel, even though Ellison did not organize his manuscript and left no notes on structure.

Without giving too much away, there’s a vividly wrought assassination of a prominent politician that takes place in this book. It takes a long time for “Juneteenth” to even come up as a topic.  (The fuller version of the manuscript was titled “Three Days Before the Shooting…” in 2010).

Ellison’s language is sweeping and strikingly poetic at times. However, the plot is disjointed, and the book jumps back and forth in time, often in a confusing manner.

You could say that this novel is epic, and is actually a legitimate stab at the “great American novel” that every U.S. author dreams of achieving. Yet, it’s also a little bit nuts. It’s certainly a trip. I’d concede that some of the greatest phrases in English by any writer, living or dead, are achieved in this head-spinner of a book.

‘Miss Juneteenth’

The independent film “Miss Juneteenth” debuted in 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival, just before the coronavirus lockdown. It was given South by Southwest’s Louis Black “Lone Star” award in 2020, and also won a Gotham Award for best actress in January 2021, for Nicole Beharie’s nuanced performance as single mom Turquoise Jones.

“Miss Juneteenth” centers on the story of a mother and daughter navigating the titular scholarship pageant in suburban Fort Worth, Texas. Turquoise Jones is a former “Miss Juneteenth” winner. She enters her daughter Kai into the same pageant, but Kai would rather dance with the cool kids at school and hang out with her (unapproved) boyfriend.

This movie is sweet and insightful and without pretension. For those who don’t have the time or patience to read about Juneteenth, it gives an acceptable summary of what the holiday is all about.

Beharie is an absolute standout, revealing the frustration and determination of a single mother who won the prize, but didn’t take advantage of the full scholarship to an HBCU (historically Black college and university). She plays Jones with grace, grit, perspiration and resolve. Despite the curveballs she’s seen and bad hands she’s been dealt, she’s determined to make a better life for her only child.

Some may remember Beharie from her starring role in the Fox supernatural series, “Sleepy Hollow,” or from her turn as Jackie Robinson’s wife Rachel in the 2013 movie “42.” Her character died in the third season finale of “Sleepy Hollow” in 2016, and Beharie later said that she was dropped because the production company would not make accommodations for an autoimmune disease she suffers. So in a way, art imitates life, and “Miss Juneteenth” represents a nice comeback for the talented actor. Incidentally, the movie earned a 99% “fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes.

‘Freedom in Full Bloom’

The Segerstrom Center for the Arts is teaming with the Institute of Black Intellectual Innovation (IBII) at Cal State Fullerton to present the Center’s first Juneteenth celebration, “Freedom in Full Bloom.” It will be presented today and Saturday on the Julianne and George Argyros Plaza. (Saturday is sold out.)

According to Marytza Rubio, director of community engagement at the Center, Orange County’s largest nonprofit arts organization was motivated to present a Juneteenth event after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis at the hands of police, and the subsequent protests and ongoing Black Lives Matter movement.

“During the Black Lives Matter uprising last year, many members of our SCFTA community were galvanized and ready to have honest conversations about the actions that arts organizations can take in shaping an anti-racist culture,” Rubio said. “This first Juneteenth at the Center is part of an intentional effort to recognize, amplify, and support Black artists and communities in Orange County. 

“But this isn’t just about this one event,” Rubio continued. “You can’t do one event, or one social media post, or one diversity workshop, and be done with it. ‘Freedom in Full Bloom’ is part of our ongoing commitment to prioritize historically excluded artists, and partner with gifted community leaders and innovators.”

Juneteenth Celebrations in Orange County

OC Juneteenth Celebration

Hosted by the Orange County Heritage Council
Music will be provided by DJ Rizzkay

When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, June 19
Where: Centennial Park, 3000 W. Edinger Ave., Santa Ana
Featuring: Free COVID testing and vaccinations, hand sanitizer
Bring your own chairs and umbrellas
Info: (714) 579-9966, oc-hc.org, or June19thfestival@gmail.com

Juneteenth Freedom Day

Hosted by Doug Chaffee, supervisor for District 4, OC Board of Supervisors
When: 2-4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Anaheim Community Center Park, 250 E. Center St., Anaheim
Featuring: Live music, resource tables and family activities; free COVID vaccinations onsite
Info: (714) 834-3440 or Fourth.District@ocgov.com

Freedom in Full Bloom: A Juneteenth Celebration

When: 7 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Argyros Plaza, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 500 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Featuring: J. Mike and Friends on Friday; a variety of performances and poetry readings on Saturday
Tickets: $10 per person, up to four people per pod for Friday; Saturday is sold out
Advisory: Masks are encouraged, but not required for patrons. Each pod will be separated by 6 feet from each other.
Info: (714) 556-2787 or scfta.org

The Center’s Juneteenth event has been organized by Natalie J. Graham, chair of the African American Studies department at Cal State Fullerton and director of the IBII. It will feature “Summer Sounds on the Plaza” with J. Mike and Friends on Friday evening; the Dembrebrah West African Drum and Dance Ensemble on Saturday; a painting activity with KayJo Creatives; poetry performances hosted by bridgette bianca, featuring F. Douglas Brown, Nikia Chaney, James Coats, Maya Adenihun, Romaine Washington and Marcus Omari; and a planting of native African seeds in local soil.

Graham said Juneteenth is important because it’s a reminder of the freedom that so many people have fought so hard for in our nation’s history.

“So much of our identity in the United States is rooted in the idea of being free,” she said. “Juneteenth is a reminder that we can have this beautifully rhetorical statement and document, the Declaration of Independence, without having even the image of freedom. It’s a perfect reminder that our freedom is not rhetorical. Freedom lives in rights and in equality. It’s something we have to guard, protect and work toward.”

Jamila Moore Pewu, an assistant professor of digital humanities and new media in history at CSUF, provided historical consultation for the program. She is putting together a link to Juneteenth resources on the Segerstrom Center’s web page and social media sites. Pewu said the Emancipation Proclamation was also a document, but “Juneteenth was the community’s response to that executive order.”

“It’s not just that the government did something,” Pewu said. “It’s a call and response. The call went out to abolish slavery. Juneteenth is the community’s response. It was important for people who were so outside the American ideal — they were considered property — for them to have the audacity to celebrate their freedom. The audacity of people to get out there, to publicly parade themselves in the street, and celebrate with picnics, beverages and pageants — that’s the meaning of Juneteenth.”

According to Pewu, some traditions that have carried on through the years to celebrate Juneteenth include parades, pageants, choirs, choral groups and red-colored foods: strawberry soda, watermelon, red velvet cake and barbecues with red sauces. Red symbolizes bloodshed, death, freedom and important moments in life, stretching back to West African traditions, Pewu said.

Juneteenth is also an acknowledgment of the African American population that exists in Orange County, even though the numbers have been small for decades. Only 2.1 percent of the county population identifies as Black or African American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That represents about 56,000 people.

“When you see representations of yourself in the landscape, that makes a huge difference,” said Pewu, who lives with her family in Irvine. “When you don’t see evidence and representations of yourself, that sense of belonging takes a lot longer to root.”

Graham, who lives in Buena Park, concurred. “There’s a legacy of anti-black racism in Orange County. With that legacy, you’ve seen a lot of folks leaving. All of those things are part of why those numbers are so low. We can build with the numbers that are here. Orange County is a place where we need to continue to push forward.”

With the passage of Juneteenth as a national holiday, and the confirmation that the center will bring back the Juneteenth celebration in 2022, it looks like some progress is being made in the OC.

“Annual events are so important — not just for now, but we’re going to keep doing it,” Graham said. “(Juneteenth) is an issue of humanity. What kind of person do you want to be? Part of it is acknowledging the terrible history of the United States. It’s part of our collective history as a nation.

“If you’re not acknowledging Black history and culture, you’re not positioned well to understand even the nation you’re living in. We’re all part of this nation together.”

Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at rchang@voiceofoc.org.

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