There is a school of thought to which I subscribe that asserts the United States fought two wars of independence: a Revolutionary War in which some of us became free, and a Civil War in which the rest of us did.
It makes sense, then, to celebrate two Independence Days. Because we chose a path of reconciliation after the Civil War, our country has never really celebrated the victory of the Union over the Confederacy. And while the Fourth of July is less about beating the Brits than it is about our resolve to be free — in 1776, we wrote ourselves a check we wouldn’t cash for another seven years — we’ve never had a holiday to celebrate that second American Revolution. We didn’t want to upset the feelings of our former neighbors turned enemies turned neighbors again, and so, like any family at Thanksgiving who doesn’t want to revisit that time we had a big argument and didn’t talk to each other for four years, we pretend it never happened. Which is messed up.
But there’s another reason why we need Juneteenth. For someone who grew up outside of Philadelphia, lives in Connecticut, and frequently travels to Boston, Revolutionary history surrounds me. Everywhere I go is some reminder of the late 1700s. Yet every year on July 4, the populations of fifty states and a bunch of territories celebrate events to which they have no tangible connection, events that occurred hundreds if not thousands of miles away from where they live.
For me, the American Revolution literally took place in my backyard. But for many it’s distant and remote, something that happened long long ago in a galaxy far far away.
I do wonder if that’s why — partly, at least — some have glommed onto Confederate history and its myths of lost causes and resurrections to come because for them the history is local. To those who live with it, it’s palpable and real; they can visit the battlefields and sites of importance. They feel connected to that history, which in itself isn’t bad, but just as brushing against poison ivy or mercury will poison you, they also sympathize with it.
Here in New England where white people are furiously Googling how to celebrate juneteenth, our newest national holiday is a very recent thing. But in the south — and of course Texas — the holiday is firmly established with parades and festivals and public traditions that date all the way back to 1866. Because the event it commemorates took place outside the original 13 colonies, it provides a relevance to those Americans who don’t live between Boston and Yorktown. It gives southerners a personal piece of American history to celebrate that doesn’t glorify the Confederacy.
Critics of Juneteenth argue that it is divisive. To the contrary it’s a step toward reconciliation. When caught doing something that’s harmed someone else, an immature child refuses to believe he did anything wrong. But a mature grown-up recognizes he made a mistake when he did something that brought pain to another. An immature child blames the victim for the trouble he’s in. A grown-up takes responsibility. To me, that’s what Juneteenth signifies. It’s about we as Americans growing the fuck up.
And besides, if grilling steaks and eating strawberry shortcake brings peace between the races, who am I to stand in the way?