Juneteenth 2022
A woman celebrating the Juneteenth on a street with an African American flag

I’m Still Figuring Out How To Celebrate Juneteenth — And I’m OK With That

Now, this holiday means so much to me.

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I was in college when a friend introduced me to Juneteenth. As the second week of June 2006 approached, she hit me with a very casual, “What we gonna do for Juneteenth?” Even though my family was from the South, and I grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood with diverse friendships, I had no idea what she was talking about. At the time I played it cool, but I felt like a bit of a failure for not knowing about this holiday. She was from Mississippi, and grew up celebrating Juneteenth with family. I was from Los Angeles, and there was no mention of it at home or at school, and I certainly never saw any “Honoring Juneteenth” ads on TV.

For years after, I didn’t give a ton of thought to Juneteenth, which celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. I had learned of its history, but there wasn’t anything beyond that knowledge. I knew it was special, but I didn’t have a tangible way to honor it, so I didn’t. But after years of figuring it out, now this holiday that I knew so little about carries so much meaning for me, and that meaning deepens with every year I celebrate.

I decided to get serious about Juneteenth in 2020. That year, the holiday fell smack in the middle of protests against racism and police brutality following the murder of George Floyd. Juneteenth reminded me of the joy that I could feel alongside the pain. After months of isolation, with nothing but TikTok trends to distract me from the never-ending flood of traumatizing images, Juneteenth was like stepping inside a cool, air-conditioned room after suffocating outside on a muggy summer day.

This day reminds me not to give up.

On that day, I spent time with one friend embracing all the blackity goodness we could handle. We played Beyoncé’s “Black Parade” nonstop. We danced and cracked jokes. We ordered soul food and sang along with Alicia Keys and John Legend on Verzuz. The entire day was Black joy in its fullness — and it reminded me to embrace everything about myself, my people, and the freedom we have here and now. In the years since, I’ve kept learning about ways to celebrate that feel truest to me, like connecting with friends, honoring my own history, and making change for others.

When Juneteenth was declared a federal holiday in 2021, I was in Texas visiting friends. We celebrated by inviting their family members over and cooking together. My friends are Nigerian, and since my Ancestry DNA suggests that I, too, am 37% Nigerian, we all figured it was time I learned to cook traditional Jollof rice and stew.

I’m not normally one for intricate dishes — I lack the patience. But this time I persevered, because for Juneteenth it mattered. I embraced the by-your-gut recipes that were not from carefully measured cups and steps, but passed down in person over time. Not too long after that, I reached out to my grandmother so I could try my hand at gumbo, and other traditional meals I’ve avoided cooking over the years. My first attempt at gumbo was not the best (roux is trickier than it seems!), but establishing this connection to my past through cooking reminded me that not all was lost from our past. It’s a way of connecting with ancestors.

Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

This year, I’ll be celebrating the holiday at Juneteenth Fest in Los Angeles’ historic Leimert Park, a neighborhood that’s become a staple for Black art, music, and business. I’ve also decided the holiday is a good time to reflect on what I’m doing to move the needle forward on social justice for Blacks and other marginalized groups. This year, I plan to actively use my platform as a journalist to highlight Black stories to the media, and make sure local communities are paying attention — while it’s great to have celebratory holidays, it’s important that our stories, events, and concerns are shared year-round. It’s discouraging to look at all the problems Black people face, from issues like wealth inequality to health care discrimination, but this day reminds me not to give up. I want to continue figuring out not just what celebrating Juneteenth means for me, but what it means for all of us.

My own path to finding Juneteenth has been long. But progress in general is often slow, and meandering, and sometimes seems to go backwards. Even the history of the holiday is significant: Juneteenth marks the day in June 1865 when the last enslaved people in Texas learned of their freedom. But it came more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation actually freed them, and then, it took even more time for slavery to be officially outlawed by the 13th Amendment, which was ratified in December 1865. Even now, there’s still work to be done on issues like mass incarceration, police brutality, and institutional oppression. But that’s why we keep trying, and we keep celebrating. Progress is never straightforward, but it’s always worth working for.

Holidays are symbolic, they hold our stories, and they represent our values and ideals.

Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday is hardly an answer to all the problems the Black community is faced with. But the recognition has been invaluable for those of us who want to see it — and our history — celebrated and honored. Holidays have always been a part of human history: they are symbolic, they hold our stories, and they represent our values and ideals.

Juneteenth is about freedom and growth despite systemic oppression. For Black people like me still figuring out how to honor Juneteenth, I want to give you permission to find your own way. Whether it's getting together with family and friends, leaning into your own history, or taking the time to reflect on the past and deciding what you can do for the future, do it. Own this holiday, for yourself and for our people.

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