On Saturday morning in Honolulu, more than 100 people gathered below a giant tree in Kapiolani Park. Birds chirped and beachgoers looked on curiously as the group listened to poetry and speeches. Many wore white, stood or sat in a circle and placed offerings of white and yellow flowers on a table.
The group was honoring Juneteenth, the newly created federal holiday that commemorates June 19, 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learned they were free.
Hawaii’s African American community has long celebrated Juneteenth but this was the first year that the day was officially recognized by both the state and the federal government.
Gov. David Ige signed a bill recognizing Juneteenth on Wednesday, and President Joe Biden signed a measure Thursday making June 19 a federal holiday.
The news has been met with mixed emotions from many in Hawaii’s Black community. Some of those who advocated for the change felt joy and disbelief as they watched a long-held dream become reality. Others questioned the significance of acknowledging the holiday when other efforts to address racial injustice have stalled.
But many see the recognition of Juneteenth as an opportunity to help educate people about the history of slavery as well as how anti-Blackness manifests itself in Hawaii today.
“It is an important opportunity for us to think about how entrenched systems can change,” says Akiemi Glenn, who leads the Popolo Project, an organization dedicated to telling the stories of Black people in Hawaii.
Celebrating Juneteenth in Hawaii is a little different than on the continent because in 1865, Hawaii was an independent nation that banned slavery, Glenn said.
“The Kingdom of Hawaii expressly forbade slavery and welcomed formerly enslaved people here and welcomed them into the court and allowed them to be fully human here in a way they weren’t able to elsewhere,” she said.
Juneteenth “memorializes a moment of jubilation in another country,” Glenn said. “In some ways, it’s a lot to ask.”
But the opportunity for education can’t be overstated, says Honolulu attorney Daphne Barbee Wooten. She remembers advocating for Hawaii to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day decades ago. It took several years to convince state legislators to do so.
“It became a federal holiday before it became a holiday in Hawaii,” she said. “This time around it didn’t appear to be so difficult.”
Hawaii was the 49th state to recognize Juneteenth, with Ige signing the bill just a day before Biden made it a federal holiday. Only South Dakota has yet to recognize Juneteenth. Still, Barbee-Wooten cried as she watched the news coverage of the new federal holiday.
“Everybody says July 4 was independence. As Frederick Douglas said, ‘What to the slave is the fourth of July?’” she said.
“There really is an emotional component of, ‘Look at this, history can change and has changed and will change hopefully for the better.’ It gives me hope and pause that it will change for the better.”
Samantha Neyland was among the people who lobbied at the Legislature for Juneteenth to be recognized this year. She was the first African American to win Miss Hawaii Teen in 2012.
At the time, she remembers being told, “Hawaii would never crown a Black Miss Hawaii USA.”
Eight years later, Neyland won Miss Hawaii USA. To her, the state’s acknowledgement of Juneteenth is particularly meaningful because it feels like a recognition of racism in Hawaii, the existence of which is sometimes denied.
The tension of celebrating Juneteenth involves also recognizing that racial injustice persists, says Njoroge Njoroge, an associate professor of history at the University of Hawaii.
“It’s still an unfulfilled promise,” Njoroge said. “We’re free but really not quite.”
“Instead of thinking about Juneteenth as this opportunity for us to celebrate turning the page, we need to use the time to reflect on the really vast racial and economic inequalities that are still with us,” he added, such as the disparities affecting Hawaii’s Marshallese community.
Those racial disparities are part of why the official acknowledgement of Juneteenth brings up mixed feelings for Honolulu resident Jamila Jarmon.
“It’s a ‘Great, what’s next?’ sort of feeling,” she said. She wants people to know the history of Juneteenth — some of her family were enslaved. At the same time, “I don’t want people to think it’s enough because it’s in no way shape or form enough.”
Part of what makes Juneteenth complicated for her is that it’s a celebration of freedom in Hawaii, where the injustice of the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom still reverberates.
“We have to talk about who is in power in Hawaii and why they’re in power and how they’re in power. We have to talk about how white supremacy permeates this place that we call a melting pot,” Jarmon said.
There’s also a lot more Hawaii leaders could do to help marginalized communities in Hawaii, she said. She was disappointed the Legislature didn’t pass an initiative to ban no-knock warrants inspired by the police killing of Breonna Taylor. She was also disturbed by the recent police killings of Lindani Myeni and Iremamber Sykap.
“Why is our community that’s seen as this bastion of democracy and progressiveness so regressive?” Jarmon asked.
Ethan Caldwell, an ethnic studies assistant professor at the University of Hawaii, says Juneteenth is an opportunity to investigate why anti-Blackness exists in Hawaii, the invisibility of Black community members in the islands and the racial injustice they experience.
“As much as (Hawaii is) seen as a haven historically, the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness still forces us to question how much of the islands is a haven,” he said. “Black folks here and on the continent are still seen through a dehumanized lens.”
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