Black history is under attack as states ban critical race theory. Teaching Juneteenth is key to fighting back

People put their fists in the air as Lift Every Voice and Sing is performed at the intersection of H St NW and 16th Street NW near the White House, an area renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza, while celebrating the Juneteenth holiday June 19, 2020
People put their fists in the air as Lift Every Voice and Sing is performed at the intersection of H St NW and 16th Street NW near the White House, an area renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza, while celebrating the Juneteenth holiday June 19, 2020. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • While Juneteenth finally gets federal recognition, state and local governments erase Black history.
  • Opponents who want to ban Critical Race Theory in schools often don’t know what it is.
  • The backlash is in response to calls to end systemic racism and support for Black Lives Matter.
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Last year, the nation roiled with turmoil in June following the death of George Floyd.

The violent response from police against Black Americans asserting their humanity made a typically warm month in 2020 seem like a sweltering desert for Black people.

But Juneteenth celebrations felt like a cool oasis in the midst of a desert of police aggression. The holiday known to Black Americans for generations, but new to federal recognition, provided a respite of celebration to remember that we can find joy even in the midst of terror.

For large numbers of Black Americans, specifically Black Texans, Juneteenth had been a holiday that maintained just as much national significance as every other patriotic holiday.

What the past year demonstrated was that the United States must not only acknowledge Juneteenth, it must teach this history behind the holiday; including the shameful sin of slavery and yearslong efforts to exploit enslaved labor in Texas after the conclusion of the war.

The importance of the holiday this year is parallel to the urgency of the holiday in 2020, albeit for different reasons.

Today, the horror of slavery and the depraved inhumanity of those who participated in it, and fought for it are generally recognized. Any examination of slavery’s centuries long effect, however, is being met with combative pushback.

GOP leaders and school boards have put critical race theory in their crosshairs. States including Idaho, Iowa, Texas, and Oklahoma have all taken up or passed legislation banning the teaching of critical race theory.

Oklahoma’s law even mandates that lessons should not make an individual feel ” discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.”

The initiatives are a response to demands for an end to systemic racism in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Backlash to racial justice makes teaching Juneteenth critical

Many of the most ardent advocates for not teaching critical race theory know very little about it, often labeling it divisive. They have made it a catch-all term for any ideas or policies that would make the US more equitable.

There’s even a conservative political action committee formed to support school board candidates who “oppose public schools teaching critical race theory and the 1619 project.”

What these states are ostensibly attempting to ban is an honest recounting of American history and the outcomes that are produced by white-centered, anti-Black public policy and socially accepted norms.

American white supremacists and their moderate sympathizers have long weaponized education to mask atrocities they’ve committed. For them, this is nothing new. In the retelling of American Civil War history, “Lost Cause” mythology was taught for decades to make Southern secession and rebellion more reasonable and humane.

Rather than investigating the reasons for Southern secession and vilifying the those who took up arms, the Lost Cause Theory sought to “recast the Confederacy’s humiliating defeat in a treasonous war for slavery as the embodiment of the Framers’ true vision for America.”

Southerners didn’t want to relive the shame of their parents and grandparents fighting a losing war in defense of their depravity. Meanwhile white northerners, many anti-Black in their own way, had no problem going along with the lie.

As with any effort at racial progress in the United States, this moment has also been met with backlash.

But as Juneteenth approaches, the need to not only acknowledge, but remember the need for the holiday is essential to the United States becoming the place it purports itself to be.

As we’ve learned from recent Tulsa commemorations, acknowledgment without restitution is empty rhetoric.

Holidays and commemorations are more than days off. They are national markers where we collectively remember, commemorate, learn, and celebrate. They are days when the entire population reflects on the reason for the occasion.

Just as Labor Day is an opportunity to recognize and remember hard fought gains for working people, and Memorial Day remembers those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service of the United States, Juneteenth must be a day where all Americans remember that none of us can be free until all of us are free.

It smacks of hypocrisy for federal and local governments to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday while so many Americans are working to prevent students from learning why the holiday exists.

The occasion must center the uncomfortable history of the country and the unquenchable human will for freedom that Black people in this country have always displayed, even before the first Juneteenth of 1865.