Since the time that Sherri Craig was young, Juneteenth has been a meaningful day for her.

Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, Craig, who is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Tech, remembers large celebratory family picnics and other gatherings with food, music, dancing, and more on or near June 19.

On that day, 157 years ago, one of the last groups of Black slaves living in Texas learned that they were free. It was a few months after the end of the Civil War, but the message was slow to reach the Lone Star State.

Last year, Juneteenth became an official U.S. holiday, and government offices, including Virginia Tech, will be closed on June 20 this year in observance.

It’s an important commemoration for America, but Craig urges people to recognize that this is not a new holiday - it’s long been a celebration of freedom for Black communities.

In fact, this summer Craig is researching the ways that higher education institutions now recognize Juneteenth as a holiday in public statements, as well as statements regarding anti-police violence and anti-Black racism. Her work is part of the Juneteenth Scholars Program for the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech.

Craig recently shared her insights about Juneteenth, its significance to the Black community, and ideas for how all Americans, regardless of race, can recognize the holiday.
Q. What did Juneteenth celebrations look like for your family and others in your community?

Craig: We would go to Juneteenth picnics in Phoenix. Gathering, community, and having fellowship around food is common. For my family it was fried fish and watermelon. We are a huge watermelon family.

We always had a big fish fry. My grandfather owned a fish restaurant, and it was a big part of my family.

Music is a must, and really thinking about jubilee, joyfulness, and coming together.

Most of the picnics are in the afternoon, not too much into the evening, but I have seen block parties for Juneteenth.
Q. What does Juneteenth mean to you?

Craig: I grew up in a proud Black family. I grew up recognizing that this is really a reflection of Black joy and Black freedom. We take a pause and say “Thank goodness, we are free.” There’s this moment of “Here’s our time to be Black.”

My parents used to explain it was like the Fourth of July for Black folks. You’re talking about the joy of no longer being controlled by your oppressors.

It really is the celebration of Blackness and the celebration of all of the struggles and all of the amazing ways that we should be celebrating Black identity in our country. Juneteenth is wonderful.

I have a son, and I look forward to sharing with him now that he is old enough why we are going to slow down and eat something fun on June 19.
Q. What are your thoughts on Juneteenth now being a federal holiday?

Craig: I get sort of frustrated, and I get frustrated for a couple of reasons.

It’s not new. It’s not something even I would say that most Black people want to be official and be celebrated.

We have seen corporations taking big missteps, whether it’s Walmart’s [Juneteenth] ice cream debacle, and Target, and a few other places having Juneteenth t-shirts. That’s not how it’s celebrated.

The same joy of celebrating Blackness, much like love for Valentine’s Day, happens every single day. Why does it now need to be a Hallmark holiday?

Juneteenth is great. It’s fantastic, but it’s much like Cinco de Mayo [the May 5 anniversary of Mexico's victory over the Second French Empire at the Battle of Puebla]. People don’t know what it is and will not know what it is as it rolls forward and is officially recognized or pops up on your Google calendar.
Q. How should all Americans, regardless of race, recognize Juneteenth?

Craig: If we’re taking a moment to reflect on harms and to celebrate another year of freedom, is there a moment for all to reflect on your own freedom or your own harms that you have done?

We know that spending more time with other races increases our empathy toward those races. So, is there a moment to say [to a Black friend], “I would love to celebrate Juneteenth and to recognize and reflect on this day. Can I join you?”

Also, it doesn’t have to be for everyone. It’s okay if it just gets to stay a Black holiday.
Q. What do you hope that institutions will take from your research to apply to their public Juneteeth statements?

Craig: It’s early to say, but I do hope that there is something we’ve all been asking for, which is moments of deep reflection and action. There is commitment, reaffirmation, and recognition, but all of those things feel rather abstract.

But what’s happening during that day [Juneteenth] that we get off? For most Blacks that I know, we are eating and celebrating and being joyful in our freedom.  How is that translated to non-Black employees and students?

For me, it’s a point of deep reflection - how can we move forward and take this joy of the day into our every day? I try to take a moment for that, sometimes hourly on hard weeks.