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What Juneteenth Means to Me

By Lori Perkins

I am a native New Yorker (third generation in my father’s side), but I have known about Juneteenth since I was a child, because I grew up in a city of different people and was fortunate enough to have many Black friends my whole life

I really learned about Juneteenth when I read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which I considered (at that time in the ‘70’s/’80’s) the greatest novel of the 20th century.  I was eager to see what else he had written and saw repeated mentions of his unfinished second novel, Juneteenth. I then did a deeper dive into the story of Juneteenth and hoped that he would one day finish the novel.  It was published posthumously in 1999.  It took him more than 40 years to write (which is fitting when you think how long it took for this holiday to be “published.”)

I had a close friend who was also a native New Yorker, but had family through marriage throughout the country. Since she was a teacher, I asked her about her Juneteenth experiences.  She told me it was a time of family gathering (giant family picnic) and that everyone in the family knew about it, no matter where they were from.

My mother’s family came from Greece after WWII.  We always acknowledged “Ohi Day,” which falls on October 23rd (Ohi means no in Greek).  When I was a little girl I would run around wishing everyone I knew Happy Ohi Day, but it soon became clear to me that no one knew what I was talking about.  As a child I explained it as the day the Greeks said no to Hitler (it was actually Mussolini, but I did not know the difference as a young child). As I got older, I understood the significance of the holiday (Greece was one of the few European countries that didn’t acquiesce, for which they are still proud to this day). There used to be a Greek parade on that day in New York City (not sure if it still takes place post-Covid), but I always acknowledge the day.  I am happy to share it with those who don’t know about it.  I wish we all did.

That’s how I feel about Juneteenth.  I didn’t grow up with it, but I am happy to know about it and acknowledge it. I am actually thrilled to now be invited into the celebration, as I believe in what it stands for and am proud to have it associated with my American story.

So Happy Juneteenth! And go buy and read Ellison’s novel to really commemorate and celebrate. Or watch Shonda Rhimes Black Barbie documentary, which premiers on Netflix today!


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