In a few days, Juneteenth will be upon us. At first glance, this holiday may appear to be of little concern or political significance. But in actuality, this holiday is one of the most crucial dates on the calendar of revolutionary socialists in the United States, and we must understand why.
What is Juneteenth? What does it mean and why is this a question worthy of exploration?
Originating as a regional holiday in Texas, and spreading via migration patterns to Afro-American communities throughout the United States, Juneteenth has long been a day to commemorate emancipation and celebrate Black community and pride. Its observance has fluctuated throughout the years, coinciding with the ups and downs of the broader Afro-American freedom struggle.
Historically, Juneteenth was unknown or of little significance to those outside of Afro-America. This changed over the course of the 2010s due to depictions in popular media (such as in Black-ish and Atlanta) and increased popular interest in Black history and culture, particularly spurred on by the #BlackLivesMatter movement. But the defining moment in the contemporary resurgence of Juneteenth was found in the rebellions of 2020. As we wrote at the time,
“Juneteenth 2020 was commemorated on a massive scale. Thousands upon thousands marched from coast to coast, union dockworkers organized by the left-wing ILWU shut down every port on the West Coast, and a bill to make Juneteenth a countrywide holiday was introduced in the Senate.”
Here we must note the two aspects of contemporary Juneteenth. On the one hand, we see it as a day of mass protests and politics, on the other hand, its appropriation by the state as 1) a concession to Afro-America and 2) its reclamation as a day of “safe” celebratory Blackness. This reflects a broader trend in US politics over the past decade. As Afro-America has reasserted itself into countrywide life (through #BlackLivesMatter, increased mainstream cultural production, the election of Obama, etc) there have been a variety of resulting trends. There has been renewed militancy, renewed reformism, and a renewed appropriation of Blackness by the state and corporate ad copy.
What does this mean for revolutionary politics?
Following 2020, Juneteenth has indeed become a federal holiday, with accompanying cultural programming, institutional social media posts, and branded commodities of varying appropriateness. Here we must be clear that there is certainly something positive about a broader societal recognition of Blackness and the celebration of Black identity in the United States. But Blackness for whom? Is it the Blackness of a national bourgeoisie and middle class under the umbrella of a multicultural America, Black pride reconciled to the Stars and Stripes? Or is it the Blackness of the poor and oppressed, of the Afro-American proletariat on whose backs this country rests, whose blood feeds the vampires of US imperialism? Is it yet another ethnic holiday for one flavor of the melting pot, or a day of struggle? This is the political question that must be grasped.
To be sure, Juneteenth is not going to become the Black St. Patrick’s Day. Juneteenth’s origins in emancipation and Afro-America’s status as an oppressed nation means that it is inextricably linked with politics and the Afro-American freedom struggle. It is not, like so many other “concession” holidays to diverse “ethnic” origins in the U.S., a day commemorating a heritage of a people who immigrated to the US, but a day commemorating the painful history of a people victimized by the US.
But we must remember that it is the Black bourgeoisie and middle class who are organized and have the power of money and prominence, and that they are likely to shape the form of the struggle. We must not forget that it is these classes, particularly when isolated from a Black proletarian struggle, who have a particular interest in further integrating themselves into the broader structure of US society, with expanded rights for themselves but otherwise continuity of the system. They have an interest in keeping the broad masses of Afro-America under relative control. US capitalism-imperialism shares this interest, and out of this confluence between master and comprador is born the neocolonial alliance that has kept Afro-America in chains since the state’s crushing of the radical left trend of the Civil Rights-Black Power movement. Crumbs of representation and expanded opportunities for the relatively well-off and well-educated in exchange for law and order, a deal pawned off through fomenting community-internal fears of impoverished Black youth, through the Clintonite “One America” initiative, and through a “Black Caucus” fig leaf from Congress to South Carolina. This is what we must understand if we are to properly struggle for Juneteenth.
What do we want?
As revolutionary socialists we understand that there can be no reconciliation between the broad masses of Afro-America and US imperialism. This empire was and is built on their backs, and the course of history has ruled out their true integration into a single “American” nation. We want this inherent conflict to come out into the open. We want the broad masses to obtain revolutionary self-consciousness through struggle, and through struggle and unity with all the exploited and oppressed to burn US imperialism to the ground. Therefore, we want Juneteenth to be a day of militant struggle and uncompromising opposition to imperialism and neocolonialism. The dominance of the Black Bourgeoisie over Afro-American politics and their consequent freedom to strike selfish deals excluding the majority of Afro-Americans is not a foregone conclusion. Each institution and date is a potential battlefield, that with mass organization and consciousness can be used to swell the ranks of a truly revolutionary Afro-American national liberation movement.
How do we accomplish this?
First and foremost, through organization and action. We encourage all our US readers, particularly in the South, to get in touch with local networks of Afro-American strugglers. Build links of solidarity and comradeship. Work to expand these networks and spread a revolutionary vision of opposition to US imperialism lived out in practice. Crucial in this, particularly for white readers, is to be guided by the aims of concrete aid to their liberation in conjunction with the liberation of all, and not diverting the idea of their liberation to aid only others. Organization by revolutionary socialists must not be yet another alienating politics, but must be based on their existing demands and needs: the struggle against the racist police, against the parasitic landlords, against military recruitment, against covert educational discrimination, against gerrymandering and voter registration trickery; and positive organization for mass historical and political education, for real demands of reparations, particularly in the form of land and political power: in sum, we must organize for Black popular power over Black communities. Reading groups, unions both traditional and nontraditional, community spaces, mutual aid, self-defense initiatives are just some of many possible forms this organization can take.
When networks are created and organizations established and built to higher levels, it is then that Juneteenth, or any other front, can be won for the people. Participate in an existing Juneteenth event, or help organize a new one. Demonstrate against oppression and celebrate liberatory Black history and culture. With time invested in sincere efforts, a day like Juneteenth can be made synonymous with revolutionary Afro-American freedom, just as other revolutionary national liberation movements have with their own holidays.
This statement is just a first step, for us and the reader. Propaganda means little if it does not lead to practice. It is up to us, writers and readers alike, to make dead words living deeds. If we want the Afro-American freedom struggle to win (and we do), and if we are opposed to the attempts of the state and capital to neutralize this struggle (and we are), we must be willing to struggle for Juneteenth, to win it for the broad masses and not the upper classes. In the words of Lift Every Voice and Sing,
LET US MARCH ON TILL VICTORY IS WON!