SOUTH PORTLAND — An effort is underway right now to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. It’s an interesting notion, but I think we should take it a step further. I think Juneteenth should become our national holiday.

Hear me out.

The Fourth of July has long been understood as our national holiday, commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. As a historian, that’s a little odd to me because it celebrates the day we effectively said “We’re not British.” It doesn’t so much say who or what we are, as a nation, but what we’re not. And while the Declaration boasts some lofty ideas – “all men are created equal” endowed with “unalienable rights” – most, possibly all, of those who signed the document did not really believe that “all” meant all. Many were actively enslaving other people, but even those who weren’t did not believe that women, African Americans, Native Americans and non-property owners were entitled to the same rights, the same representation in government, as they themselves were. So the Declaration of Independence has always been more of a promise than a proclamation.

Juneteenth, however, is a celebration of that promise partially fulfilled. We talk about the Emancipation Proclamation as the “freeing of the slaves,” but that’s wrong in many ways. According to the Declaration, all people are born with unalienable rights – rights that belong to them by virtue of being human – including the right to life and liberty. So, Juneteenth is the celebration of when we, as a nation, started taking the Declaration seriously. Those who were enslaved didn’t need to be granted their freedom, by some magnanimous power. By right they had been born with it and it had been taken away from them by those who enslaved them, and by a government that enabled and empowered those enslavers. The Emancipation Proclamation was a step toward righting that wrong.

And so Juneteenth seems a better national holiday for us, and one that we desperately need right now. Juneteenth was a celebration of what freedom could look like: the end of forced labor, of capricious and often deadly punishment, of children being ripped from their parents arms, of women being raped and forced to bear their rapist’s children, of dehumanization for the sake of profit, of racism and white supremacy.

We have utterly failed to live up to that vision. And nothing has brought that failure into sharper focus than 2020.

In a Juneteenth nation, there would be no children in cages on our borders. Women would control their own sexuality and reproduction. Workers would not be forced to work in unsafe and dangerous conditions. Money would not be valued over human beings. George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor would still be with us. In a Juneteenth nation, we would be fighting this pandemic with a full arsenal because we would be a nation that values every single life.

Why should a holiday for Black Americans become our national holiday? Because they have led the way for us repeatedly: in civil rights, and voting rights, and these latest protests against a police state. Because they believe so deeply in American democracy that they’ve stood in lines for hours to vote. Because they are so committed to education that they built their own schools and colleges, brick after brick. Because Black Americans have a better understanding of, and a deeper commitment to American ideals than most of us white folks ever have. When someone’s demonstrated that kind of leadership, it’s time to hand over the reins.

We are a nation with a complicated history – in which every laudatory act is matched by a shameful one. And we’re a nation, right now, in need of a bigger sense of who and what we are. It’s not enough to not be British. It’s not enough to make big promises that we have no plans to fulfill. Instead, let us choose to truly let freedom ring.

Let us become a Juneteenth nation.

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