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Juneteenth isn’t just a celebration of freedom. It’s a monument to America’s failures.

The newest federal holiday observes the emancipation of enslaved people. Let it also be a time to consider the hypocrisies of the American experiment.

An illustration: Against a dark red background, a stylized figure made of large black triangles (and who has a little circle for a head) struggles to topple a giant hourglass. The top is full; the bottom is mostly empty, specks of sand floating down through its white void evoke a KKK hood.
Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

This project was produced in partnership with Capital B.

It’s probably fitting that Juneteenth arrives exactly half a month before Independence Day. Together they offer an honest reflection of the American experiment. Juneteenth is a holiday commemorating America as it is; July Fourth celebrates the country America pretends to be.

Juneteenth — a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth” — became a federal holiday just last year, but Black Americans, particularly Black Texans, have been celebrating it for generations. The first Juneteenth festivities took place in the late 19th century in Texas’s Emancipation Park, and combined political organizing with partying in a manner still seen in today’s get-out-the-vote drives and barbecues and red drinks. Originally, as with today, it was a day to remember enslaved ancestors, to rejoice for those who found liberation from forced labor, and to spend time with friends and loved ones.

Juneteenth observes the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865. On that day, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, a storied Union Army officer, read General Order No. 3 aloud with 2,000 federal troops at his back, forcing Texas enslavers who had refused to free their slaves, as required by law, to finally do so, more than two years late.

In granting that freedom, the United States had a major opportunity, too: to ask forgiveness for the ways it had violated its core ideals by enslaving Black Americans, and to seek redemption for that self-mutilation. Instead, the nation’s leaders let the moment pass.

That this would be the outcome was clear before Granger had even finished reading his announcement. While the text began with “an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property,” it concluded: “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

General Order No. 3 was a refusal to grant Black Americans the full freedom they should have enjoyed. It informed the former enslaved that they ought to stay where they were, that they were expected to toil still for their former enslavers, that they ought not to bother the federal government, and that they were to continue being drivers of economic prosperity for white Americans.

The grimness suggested by those last lines of the order was soon borne out.

It quickly became obvious that full freedom would not come from the federal Freedmen’s Bureau, meant to help former slaves transition to emancipated American life. (It shut down in 1872, just seven years after it began.) It would not come in the midst of the bloody period of white terrorism, lynchings, shootings, robbery, and extortion that snatched away the meager gains of Reconstruction. Laying your body down for it in one World War after another couldn't buy it. Courtroom battles, peaceful protests, and even violent protests couldn’t win it. It couldn’t be secured through artistic dominance or athletic acumen or attainment of all the power promised by the White House itself.

For Black Americans, the liberty to decide their own fates remained — and remains — elusive.

True freedom has eluded us because the specter of white supremacy haunts our steps. It slinks in our shadows, appearing anywhere, at any time, in any form, as it did in Buffalo, New York, just weeks ago. It warps our lives, from the quality of care we receive as babies to the schools we attend to the places we live and the jobs we hold; it dictates the money we’re paid, the way strangers treat us. The infection of white supremacy has penetrated our country so deeply that no aspect of Black life goes untouched.

It has been there from the beginning, from the moment the nation’s founders willfully sacrificed the nascent country’s soul for profit and political expediency.

In doing so, they rejected their Declaration of Independence’s promise “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Instead, they doomed future Americans to the same fate they lamented in their own complaints about colonial rule: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”

The true tragedy of the founders’ act is in the possibilities it destroyed. The decision to permit race-based slavery, buttressed by the lie of white supremacy, led to the devastation not just of Black lives, but of white lives shattered by hate, and of Mexican and Native American lives snuffed out for land.

How might the present have been better if white Americans had worked in partnership with those of different skin tones and traditions? What happinesses might future generations have known?

We can’t know, and instead find ourselves in a postapocalyptic present. Certainly it’s one somewhat brightened by the art, culture, and societal achievement created by the descendants of slaves. That light pales, however, in comparison to the darkness that birthed it; it is all but eclipsed by the continuous fight against white supremacy. Today, that struggle feels static: Many Americans refuse to truly reckon with the human suffering our founders chose to endorse — and deny its effect on the present.

As Americans celebrate Juneteenth this year, it is difficult not to wonder how much more free — truly free — Black Americans are today than they were on Juneteenth 1922, or even Juneteenth 1865. It is difficult not to wonder whether freedom is merely delayed or will be eternally denied.

That question is exactly why Americans, Black and otherwise, need to celebrate Juneteenth. It can be a time for confronting the hypocrisies of our founding documents, the betrayal seeded in Granger’s announcement, the failure to pay former slaves reparations, and the country’s enduring aversion to full freedom for Black Americans. It gives us a moment each year not only to mark progress, but to confront the influence historical harms have on our current reality.

Juneteenth provides us with an annual space to do so. But if we can successfully address all of these issues, it could become something else: a new, true Independence Day — one on which we can celebrate independence from the betrayal of the American promise and the lasting scars created by the embrace of slavery. It could be a day on which we can celebrate true freedom for all.

In this month’s issue of the Highlight, Vox has partnered with Capital B — a recently launched nonprofit news organization that centers Black voices — to commemorate Juneteenth by exploring the complex relationship Black Americans have with freedom. We hope these stories can offer some renewed courage to those in need of a roborant, and that they can be one small part of an ongoing effort to rid the United States of its white supremacy affliction.

Contributor Julia Craven looks at capital and the ways it has been alternately withheld and demanded from African Americans. Juneteenth merch, she writes, serves as a reminder: “Many of us are taught that this parable of America is a beautiful one — it is a nation where you can do or be anything if you work hard enough for it. ... [But] Black people who want to savor America’s sweetest dream must pay for it, again and again.”

Vox’s Ian Millhiser writes on the ways the nation’s founding documents have continuously rigged the game against Black Americans. Yet he also offers reasons we should remain hopeful about efforts to ensure fairness for future generations.

In a time of renewed threats to the sense of safety among African Americans, Jewel Wicker, Capital B Atlanta’s editor-at-large, speaks with the founders of a place dubbed Freedom, Georgia, a model of Black self-determination that could soon be the latest idyllic Black settlement community.

Vox reporter Fabiola Cineas revisits reparations and the movement demanding a federal commission by Juneteenth, while Capital B’s Christina Carrega asks how the land of the free continues to lead the world in putting its residents — predominantly Black men and women — behind bars.

Finally, Capital B’s Kenya Hunter explains the Juneteenth flag, walking readers through the dense symbolism of the red, white, and blue banner.

Through our words, and with imagery by Detroit visual artist KaCeyKal!, Vox and Capital B honor Juneteenth and use it as an opportunity to explore the nation’s fair-weather relationship to freedom. Our hope is that one day, Juneteenth can instead be a chance to celebrate freedom from white supremacy — a yearly celebration observed by a truly free people.

An illustration depicts fists holding ice cream spoons

Juneteenth merch is American consumerism at its most crass

From enslavement to the “Black tax,” Black people have been asked to pay for freedom for far too long.

By Julia Craven

An illustration of figures carrying wood as a community, as if they were building something.

3 Black women couldn’t find a place their families felt safe. So they bought a town.

Freedom, Georgia, is a utopian vision for Black life in America.

By Jewel Wicker

An illustration shows hands breaking chains apart with money.

There’s no freedom without reparations

Keeping the promise of “40 acres and a mule” might have transformed life for Black Americans. A movement to secure payments for descendants of enslaved people rages on.

By Fabiola Cineas

An illustration shows figures falling figures amid chess pieces, depicting the idea of a game.

Democracy in America is a rigged game

The Constitution was written to thwart Black freedom. But we can change the rules.

By Ian Millhiser

The land of the free leads the world in incarceration. Why?

Reform advocates say there are other ways to respond to crimes — from rehabilitation to trauma treatment.

By Christina Carrega

An illustration shows figures holding an abstract rendering of the Juneteenth flag, in red, white, and blue.

The Juneteenth flag, explained

The flag’s designer shares the story and inspiration for his design.

By Kenya Hunter

Sean Collins is a news editor at Vox with the politics and policy team, covering Congress, the White House, and state governments. He is the co-editor of the Juneteenth issue of the Highlight.

KaCeyKal! (American b. 1991) is a Detroit-based visual artist, illustrator, and painter. He channels influences from abstract expressionism and cubism, which are heavily inspired by African art; and artists such as Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Matisse.

Editors: Lavanya Ramanathan, Sean Collins, Simone Sebastian
Copy editors: Kim Eggleston, Elizabeth Crane, Tim Williams, Tanya Pai
Art direction and illustration: KaCeyKal!
Audience: Gabriela Fernandez, Shira Tarlo, Zac Freeland, Agnes Mazur
Production/project editors: Susannah Locke, Nathan Hall

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