juneteenth: revisiting celebration

Space is a central focus in the #BlackLivesMatter protests working to dismantle racial orders, as well as the counterprotests. The protest actions are taking place in public spaces, already changed by the Covid pandemic. Material symbols of white supremacy such as statues and Confederate flags have been not just challenged this time, but written on, removed by protesters, encased or removed by authorities in anticipation of protest. Racist names on streets, forts and schools are also being replaced. This is taking place not just in the United States but in Britain and continental Europe and Australia. It is the most sudden and comprehensive reframing of linked and landmarked public space since the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago.

Public space is political because the entities in power set the conditions of its use and the ways we refer to it; and linguistic because these terms and references become embedded in language. Considerable effort is required to avoid or change them. But time is also a dimension that is political and linguistic, in the sense that the calendar is a social construction. We observe a seven-day week with a change in rhythm on the evening of the fifth day because of religious tradition – but also because the most powerful governments have chosen to uphold that pattern over others that they could have chosen. Though astronomical periods are fixed, a survey of science fiction, not to mention the various historical and revolutionary calendars, reminds us that there are alternative divisions to the 12-month year and the 24-hour day. 

Perhaps the most intense dimension of political-linguistic time is the establishment of commemorative days by nations and other political entities. The call to make Juneteenth a national US holiday is a significant thread emerging from the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, and one that would directly affect the largest number of people in their everyday lives, reminding them of these moments year after year. Juneteenth, June 19, is an African-American celebration of the end of slavery – not the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, but the news reaching the last enslaved Black people it had been kept from, in Galveston Texas two years later. It has sometimes been called Black Independence Day. In Texas it was installed as a state holiday (Texas Emancipation Day) in 1980, which means Texans get the day off and public events such as parades are organized to recognize it. Most Juneteenth celebrations, however, are private, family affairs. Over the years, Juneteenth has become a ceremonial holiday (recognized with flag waving, proclamations and other official discourse but not a day off) in all other states with the exception of Hawaiʻi and the Dakotas. 

I happen to have written a PhD dissertation on the language associated with national holidays, which is how I learned about Juneteenth. As often happens, just defining the terms – or rather, exploring their semantics, was one of the hardest parts of the study. In English, for example, holiday is a word with multiple overlapping senses; it is, as we say, polysemous. As you’d expect, it derives from religious occasions – holy days. In modern British English, however, holiday by itself most often means annual leave or vacation: multiple days away, prototypically at the seaside. In American English, the most common meaning of holiday is a celebration day, prototypically Christmas, or a day of the year that is a paid day off .

Concordance lines from the British National Corpus (early 1990s)
vs. the Corpus of Historical American English (for 2000).

This sense of a paid day off is similar to what the British call a public holiday or bank holiday. All American public holidays are linked to a theme or observance, usually political, while the British calendar is weighted toward Christian holidays and bank holidays that seem to have no higher justification except that the weather is likely to be nice. The distinction isn’t absolutely rigid; holiday can also be used casually in either variety to refer to the other kind of holiday, or, particularly in the US, to ceremonial and themed days that aren’t weekdays off, such as Halloween, parenting days, and flag days, in this case Juneteenth. The blurring of meaning between mere recognition and regular Sabbath-like work stoppage makes it seem we’re already observing Juneteenth more than we are.

Nouns require verbs to construct statements, and for verbs the keyword is celebrate. That’s the word that comes most naturally with the names of prototypical holidays: we celebrate Christmas, celebrate the Fourth of July, celebrate parenting days. But it pairs less well with days that are more solemn, and the word holiday also seems less applicable. You can celebrate V-E Day, and you might celebrate a Veterans’ Day, honoring service. But do we celebrate Memorial Day – celebrate sacrifice? It seems a bit bloodthirsty. You might have a solemn celebration. When it gets to Holocaust Day, the verb needs to be still more carefully chosen: we tend to observe, mark or commemorate. And we will refer to a commemoration, anniversary, day of remembrance, or public holiday if applicable, as such occasions are too serious to be compatible with the unmodified word holiday. Other languages have their own spectrums of words to cover the territory of happy to sad occasions.

Celebration then, is associated with joy, and moreover with joyful release. At its most basic, a celebration is a time when behavior changes, typically from the everyday to more relaxed and/or exuberant activities. Especially when performed ritually and repeatedly, this is what Bakhtin called carnival: a reversal of norms, or at least an option to reverse them. Unlike a protest, which challenges norms by refusing them, a carnival constructs its own norm,which is licensed, even enforced, by those in power. With the more solemn observances, too, there is a suspension of everyday activities and norms – that’s the ideological point of a day off –  but in these cases the substituted behavior is more subdued. One of the questions around nationalizing Juneteenth is what is appropriate for the holiday if it is to be observed by the wider population: Can other Americans, particularly white settler descendants, simply celebrate Black Americans’ emancipation, or should they spend the day reflecting on their racist history and ways to atone for it, in the manner of Holocaust commemorations? Or can they do both? This is something that will have to be worked out if the date is added to the public holiday calendar

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Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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