A last-minute piece of legislation from the Biden administration made Juneteenth a federal holiday a year ago. The sudden change on June 17, 2021 — two days before the holiday — left many institutions unprepared. But this year, observances of Juneteenth have been seen coast to coast, and many schools have followed suit. The new holiday was added to school calendars, from Cincinnati to Flagstaff, Arizona. And many teachers are making efforts to instruct their students about the holiday — and the country’s legacy of slavery.
But in some parts of the country, including certain districts in Utah, teachers will work on Juneteenth. And in states that have enacted anti-critical race theory bills, prohibiting or severely limiting how race is discussed in the classroom, talking about Juneteenth could be a challenge. As a result, some teachers are not discussing the holiday at all.
David A. Canton, an associate history professor and the director of the African American studies program at the University of Florida, spoke with Capital B about what Juneteenth means this year, considering the current political climate. The conversation below was lightly edited for clarity and length.
Capital B: Why are we seeing some pushback to acknowledging Juneteenth as a holiday?
David A. Canton: When you look at the last two holidays: the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and now Juneteenth — the last two federal holidays have been around African Americans.
When we look at Martin Luther King Jr. Day, even conservatives embrace King, even though he critiqued capitalism, militarism, and poverty, the holiday is commemorative. In other words, that’s OK. With CRT, it’s a critical interpretation of American history, dealing with racism and racial oppression. It’s a critique of American ideals and American contradictions, right?
That’s what we also see with critical race theory: People are saying, “No, no. You’re making white people feel bad.”
I think you’re touching on how tricky it is to talk about race right now. It’s become such a contentious topic for teachers. For K-12 students, what can teachers do to celebrate Juneteenth?
Teachers can teach Juneteenth. That’s easy. But it’s about your interpretation. Do you allow students to ask those critical questions? Or do we just commemorate Juneteenth with, “This is what happened, we’ll get some red soda, we have some barbecue, that’s fine.”
But if you get into why, in spite of the 13th Amendment ending slavery, we still see that racial oppression as the system has existed in this country from 1865 to 2022, an explanation for the income gap, the wealth gap, education gap — these are functions of racial oppression.
Is there any way teachers can continue to talk about Juneteenth, or tell their students about Juneteenth, without getting backlash?
I think it’s a balancing act. You can teach Juneteenth, you can teach a civil rights movement. So you can teach Juneteenth, but keep it commemorative, keep it within that limited space, but don’t draw larger critical conclusions.
So teachers have to walk a fine line, a very tricky line, on how to do it. Some can do it better than others. But as a professor, there’s no way I can’t teach what I just told you. To say that everything is fine, everything is great, that’s not history.
Considering the blowback we have seen in certain parts of the country about how race is discussed in classrooms, how much progress, when it comes to racial equity, do you think we’ve had?
We know Juneteenth passed as a federal holiday as a reaction to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other protests. Juneteenth does not cost the nation one dollar. Dr. King said something similar in the 1960s. He said, “Integration does not cost the federal government any money.” So it’s not a policy.
So, at the same time you pass Juneteenth, we see an attack on voting rights, which has a disproportionate impact on Black voters. So on one hand, patting ourselves on the back for a holiday that doesn’t cost the government any money, in terms of health care, affordable housing, the wealth gap, the income gap. And guess what? White people get to take [the holiday] off as well.
However, at the same time, you have voting suppression laws being passed. So it’s one step forward, one step back. Oftentimes, for the symbols — whether taking down statues, getting holidays — don’t lose sight of the substance: voting rights acts, protection against police brutality, affordable housing, affordable health care. Those things cost money, and that’s why I’m talking about substance. Those are policies that require the government to spend money.
Are you expecting to see more schools acknowledge Juneteenth? Are you expecting to see more contention from state leaders, and perhaps more CRT bills being passed? Where do you think we will be this time around in 2023?
It’s like the Dr. King holiday. When it first came out, some states resisted, some Southern states made it a Confederate holiday on the same day. Now, eventually in 2020, everybody recognizes Dr. King’s holiday. You’ll see the same thing with Juneteenth. Over time, it’ll be institutionalized like every other federal holiday, because, as you know, it doesn’t cost anything.
So I try to keep stuff in perspective. I try to do two things at once. So while we’re commemorating Juneteenth, I mostly advocate people to register to vote. By celebrating Juneteenth, make sure you know the issues and go out and vote.