Our Family Celebrates Juneteenth, Because July 4th Wasn’t Made For My Kids

Recently, my middle schoolers brought home some homework that was puzzling. I looked at one of the papers and frowned. Why did Eli Whitney, who we grownups were taught was a Black man who invented the cotton gin, appear to be white? My children informed me that Eli Whitney was, in fact, white. Turns out, they were right. My mind was blown.

We learned very little about Black history — which is American history — growing up. We were limited to Eli Whitney (who, again, wasn’t Black), Dr. King, and Rosa Parks. We learned a dollop here and there about slavery and Civil Rights. However, white-washed, patriarchal history was the norm, where white people were almost always elevated above any people of color as the ones who were right and pure. We said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, completely unaware that “liberty and justice for all” was not really on the country’s radar. It sounded good, but it didn’t actually exist.

All my Black history education came from self-educating. I didn’t begin this learning journey until my junior year of college when I took an African American Literature class — taught by an older, white professor. I went on to graduate, attend grad school, and become a teacher myself. With each class, I grew more and more agitated. Why hadn’t I learned comprehensive history?

Since my husband and I became parents almost 15 years ago, a lot has changed — for the better. Though the U.S. has a long way to go in terms of eradicating the preschool-to-prison pipeline, mortgage loan discrimination, voter discrimination, systemic racism, and more, we are grateful for the process our multiracial family has seen in recent years. Black History Month is commonplace (though we argue that Black history is history, and we should learn it year-round, not just in February). The CROWN Act, “a law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination,” is now legal in 20 states. In 2021, President Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday.

For those who don’t know, the Smithsonian reports that Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day when “some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. The army announced that more than 250,000 enslaved black people in the state were free by the executive decree.” The executive decree refers to the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect two years prior, but “could not be implemented in places still under Confederate control.”

Juneteenth is also known as Freedom Day and Emancipation Day. Though America tends to put the 4th of July on a pedestal as America’s birthday and thus, the people’s Independence Day, many Americans were not free in 1776. Not even close.

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There Are So Many Cool Ways to Celebrate Juneteenth With Your Kids

Our four children are Black, and for several years now, we have chosen to honor Juneteenth. They’ve attended a local Juneteenth festival with food, games, activities, and entertainment. Last year, we decided to design and wear Juneteenth tees and wear them for the Juneteenth holiday. Other ways families may choose to celebration is making a soul food meal or patronizing a Black-owned restaurant. They may decorate with banners, balloons, and fabrics featuring the Juneteenth colors: red, black, and green. Our family owns several books about Juneteenth that we display every June.  

We want our kids to understand comprehensive American history in the ways we never got to. This means — gasp! — changing tradition. For us, the true day of the start of independence is Juneteenth, not July the 4th. Only some powerful white men became free in 1776. Freedom for women, the disabled, LGBTQIA, children, and people of color would come much later — as in, we are still fighting for those freedoms today. Juneteenth was a start for our kids, but there is still so much progress to be made. 

As parents, we continue to learn and grow. As more and more true history becomes available and circulated, we are gaining the education that we never got. We hope that by evolving, we show our children the importance of learning their history and celebrating their future, because so many amazing people went before them … and dreamed of today.

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