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UCLA community members react to Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday

Black students and staff have had mixed reactions to the recent declaration of Juneteenth as a new federal holiday. While some celebrate the government’s recognition of the historic date, others still feel there is more to be done for the Black community. Clockwise from top left: Vusisizwe Azania, Harmonie Yacob, Dominic Taylor and Samone Anderson (Anika Chakrabarti/Assistant Photo editor)

By Yifan Gu

July 7, 2021 6:49 p.m.

This post was updated July 11 at 6:21 p.m.

Fourth-year English student Ohemaa Ama Asare works at Bed Bath & Beyond, where there was a Black pride station designated by the company to celebrate Juneteenth.

However, as June passed and July came, Asare found the station was soon removed.

According to The Associated Press, on June 17, after passage in the U.S. Senate by unanimous consent and the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 415 to 14, President Joe Biden signed a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, were told that they had been freed about 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the Confederacy’s surrender, according to the AP.

University of California President Michael Drake announced the following day that he intended to immediately add Juneteenth to the university system’s calendar of holidays. This year, the holiday was observed June 28 by the UC.

The formalization of the holiday caused mixed reactions in the Black community on campus, with some feeling more actions are needed.

“It’s little things like (removing the Black pride station) that add up to the fact that this is just for show,” Asare said. “And it’s honestly upsetting. So I think that, sure, if you want to make it a holiday, I mean, what is that going to do? It’s not helping anyone.”

Samone Anderson, a fourth-year African American studies and political science student, holds feelings similar to Asare’s. She said the government continues to refuse to be held accountable for what it did to Black people.

The government does not want to admit to the fact that it intentionally created a system to oppress an entire ethnic group, Anderson said.

Anderson said Black people should not be content with the idea that freedom was given to them when discussing Juneteenth. Instead, they fought for and took freedom from those who oppressed them. Juneteenth has a similar significance to Independence Day, she said.

Harmonie Yacob, a fourth-year political science student, said the declaration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday is an empty gesture. She does not think there has been a genuine apology from the government, she added, which also does many contradictory things, such as raising the police budget.

Biden, on June 23, said state and local governments could draw from $350 billion of federal coronavirus stimulus funds for programs such as hiring police officers to levels equal to or higher than those before the COVID-19 pandemic and paying overtime for community policing work, according to The New York Times.

“It was the same thing as changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but they didn’t really do anything for indigenous people,” Yacob said.

Vusisizwe Azania, director of the UCLA Beloved Community Initiative and a community service advisor from the UCLA Community Programs Office, said the making of Juneteenth is symbolic without substance. The move seemed like an attempt to placate the Black community without something tangible, such as providing reparations, he said.

“You can’t have a celebration of letting people know that they’re free without having taken concrete steps to make sure that those people who were impacted are made whole through reparations,” Azania said.

Dominic Taylor, a theater and African American studies professor, said Juneteenth tells a story of America.

“It acknowledges that we were a nation of partially enslaved persons, and that we have a self-correcting mechanism to make this the land of all,” Taylor said.

Whether a story accurately reflects the U.S. or merely shows what people want America to represent is an interesting question, he added. The story that George Washington never lied is not real but communicates people’s aspirations that politicians are honest and moral, he said.

Taylor said he was pleased by Biden’s move because it could raise awareness of America’s racialized past and make people reflect on the nation’s relationship to slavery, he said.

Yacob emigrated as a child with her family from Africa to the U.S. She learned about Juneteenth when she was in high school, and while she does not share the same American historical background as others, she said Juneteenth is important to her.

“I’m Black as much as every other person. There’s no like, ‘Oh, you’re an immigrant, and I’m going to treat you differently,’” Yacob said. “And I think it’s really important to know that history, especially in the country that you’re living in and especially the hardships that people like you have faced.”

Azania was aware of Juneteenth as far back as the 1980s or 1990s but has not participated in specific celebratory activities. He said the spirit of the holiday is symbolized in his daily community service work.

“The way I approached my life, and the nature of the work I do – it’s a constant celebration of our fight to transform American and global society and to achieve something that (Martin Luther King Jr.) talks about: the beloved community,” Azania said. “And so, every day for me really is like a Juneteenth.”

Asare’s family likes cooking, so they always host potlucks, have family nights and go to parks on Juneteenth, she said. She had fun memories of celebrating the holiday as she grew up, she recalled.

Anderson helped organize Juneteenth celebratory events last year in her hometown of Richmond, California. There were poetry expositions, spoken-word pieces, live music, different styles of dance and shows with African drums.

Looking at future years of Juneteenth, Asare said she hopes the holiday is not manipulated by companies to get more money out of Black people, such as by advertising products in the name of celebrating Juneteenth and persuading Black people to buy them.

“There can be lessons that we can learn, even if you’re not a Black person,” Taylor said. “There’s nothing wrong with having a moment to reflect on what we do to each other.”

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