Black-ish’s musical episode about Juneteenth is a pointed lesson on American ignorance
How many TV episodes have you seen about Thanksgiving? Countless, right? How about Juneteenth? I’m willing to bet the answer is either “one” (see: FX’s Atlanta) or “none.” This, as ABC’s Black-ish pointed out in its fourth season premiere (with bonus educational songs!), is an embarrassment.
The episode — which opens with the Black–ish logo in the style of Hamilton’s, a nod to the episode’s Broadway inspiration — leads with the Johnson family watching two of the kids in a milquetoast school play, a common experience for many suburban parents. But this play is about Christopher Columbus, who ostensibly “discovered” America by leading a charge to decimate its native population — a subject that sparks a righteous fury in Dre (Anthony Anderson).
Granted, it doesn’t usually take much to spark a righteous fury in Dre, but this time, he has backup from his father (Laurence Fishburne). Pops goes one step further than Dre asking the teacher why she felt the need to honor this man at all by wondering why the school doesn’t celebrate more holidays beyond the supposed basics like St. Patrick’s Day and Columbus Day. Why not, for instance, celebrate Juneteenth? (He first suggests “Magic Johnson Is Alive” day, but hey, that’s what drafts are for.)
Juneteenth is a celebration of the day that slavery was officially abolished in Texas on June 19, 1865. As Blackish takes pains to note — in a Schoolhouse Rock-esque animated sequence featuring the Roots — this happened a full two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863 and months after the Civil War ended, because “Texas farmers wanted another harvest.”
To say the least, this was, as a cartoon kid then says to the cartoon Questlove who breaks the news, “not cool.”
“We celebrate a horrible man when we don’t even acknowledge important moments in our own history,” Dre later tells his co-workers, most of whom are white and shocked to hear about the details of this holiday they’ve never heard of. When they push back against him wanting to create a publicity campaign for Juneteenth — with the crooning help of producer Aloe Blacc, playing himself — Dre can’t hold back his hurt and anger.
“This is what America always does,” he says. “We think if we don’t acknowledge something awful, it didn’t happen.”
From there, Black-ish weaves Dre’s frustration into a larger lesson about what Juneteenth is, and why it’s such a disgrace that so much of America doesn’t acknowledge it — or even know about it at all.
“[Juneteenth is] a 150-year-old tradition that no one’s heard about,” Dre says later, “not even my black kids.”
To this point: Juneteenth was celebrated by freed black Texans as early as 1866, and continued to be recognized by black Americans for decades. But it still took over a hundred years for Texas to declare it as an official holiday in 1979.
Even now that 42 states and Washington, DC, have followed suit and recognized the holiday, Juneteenth is still in no way afforded the same widespread reverence as something like Columbus Day. To the best of my recollection, I never even so much as heard the word “Juneteenth” while in elementary, middle, or high school in New Jersey. When I asked around the Vox office to see if I was an exception rather than the rule, I found out that the opposite was overwhelmingly true. Of the more than 40 people who responded, exactly two said they had learned about Juneteenth in school. (One grew up in Atlanta, the other in DC)
This is both a stunning and telling oversight. As Dre points out, the entire country celebrates the 4th of July as Independence Day, but July 4, 1776, only meant “independence” for a select group of people as an entire population remained enslaved. And even though, as Dre’s parents counter, the chances are slim that he could ever pry July 4 out of America’s hands, Black-ish choosing to spotlight Juneteenth — in close proximity to Columbus Day, no less — serves to recontextualize which holidays are worth broader cultural recognition, and why.
Juneteenth isn’t just a momentous day in history, but also one that has an enduring lesson to teach today. As the episode emphasizes in a slyly pointed ensemble number — featuring the entire cast as slaves celebrating their emancipation — “freedom” wasn’t exactly the end of black people’s suffering.
“Freedom” wasn’t, and isn’t, simple for a population whose oppression was baked into this country’s founding. Being freed from slavery didn’t mean getting reparations, or being freed from systemic racism. It just meant being released into a world that was, and remains, hostile to black people.
This is why Black-ish using its broadcast network platform to help people understand Juneteenth is so important. As Dre’s mother Ruby (Jenifer Lewis) says, some white people may never want to “celebrate something they barely even want to admit happened.” But the fact remains that Juneteenth is a vital part of this country’s history, and has been for more than 150 years. Ignoring that does nothing but deny the truth about how America came — and continues — to be.
You can watch the full “Juneteenth” episode now on ABC.com and Hulu. New episodes of Black-ish will air Tuesday nights on ABC at 9 pm Eastern.