Celebrate Juneteenth

Celebrate Juneteenth by reading these essential Black stories

· Updated on June 20, 2024

Today is Juneteenth, the oldest-known holiday celebrating the end of slavery in America. While slavery was officially abolished via the Thirteenth Amendment in 1863, it actually took a full two years later, on June 19th, 1865, before the 250,000 slaves in Galveston, Texas, were freed, and a complete end to the Civil War was declared. Free Black Texans began celebrating June 19th from that point on, and the day soon became a day for celebration for Black folks across the country.

But Juneteenth didn’t become a Federal holiday until the late year of 2021, via the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.

But Juneteenth is more than a holiday: it’s a crucial time to remember the painful, violent history of this country, as well as to celebrate the strength and beauty of American Black culture. In a year when the “anti-woke” attacks from bigots and anti-progressives keep coming hard and fast, keeping informed and aware is of the essence.

As we’ve often said, there’s no better way to engage with history than to crack open a book. Here are a few that will educate, engage, and help us prepare for the fight ahead.

Juneteenth, Ralph Ellison

We’re starting off strong with the classic, the ur-Juneteenth novel by Ralph Ellison which, while unfinished, still allows readers to bask in the brilliance of the writer best known for Invisible Man. In this genre-busting work, we meet a politician who’s made his name through sowing anti-Black hatred among his constituents. But when death comes to call, he starts to rethink his life’s mission. Originally titled Three Days Before the Shooting…, Ellison’s novel was partly lost—whether purposefully or on accident—but the part that remains is as vital and prescient as the rest of his work.

Wash Day Diaries, Jamila Rowser and Robyn Smith

This bright, beautiful graphic novel isn’t about Juneteenth, but it is a joyful celebration of Black women (and they/thems!) and the community-building moments they share. Besties Tanisha, Davene, Cookie and Kim see each other through triumph and tribulation as they live, love, and thrive in the Bronx.

On Juneteenth, Annette Gordon-Reed

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Annette Gordon-Reed combines history and autobiography to tell the true story of Black Texans in the wake of Juneteenth. Deconstructing the familiar narratives white supremacy would have many of us believe, Gordon-Reed uses her historian’s eye for detail to uncover the Black history of Texas and reframe our cultural understanding of the Civil War and its fallout.

Island of Color: Where Juneteenth Started, by Izola Ethel Fedford Collins

Speaking of the history of Galveston, Texas, scholar Izola Ethel Fedford Collins goes even deeper by exploring the Texan island, which was the home of the Holy Rosary, the first Black parish in the South, and the birthplace of Juneteenth as a Black holiday. Combining historical research and first-person accounts—including that of the authors’ grandfather, who came to Galveston after 1865 to raise his family—this book is a moving exploration of the place where the celebration started.

Rooted, Brea Baker

After slaves finally won their freedom, nothing was stopping them from putting down roots and creating their own farms and families, right? Wrong. Brea Baker’s book asks what happened to Black and Indigenous land ownership over the course of the 20th century, and the results are—if not surprising—fascinating. “Research suggests that between 1910 and 1997, Black Americans lost about 90% of their farmland,” Baker writes, using her own family’s example to trace the history of land theft away from its rightful Black and Indigenous owners.

Generations, Lucille Clifton

Poet and Pulitzer Prize finalist Lucile Clifton’s Generations is a memoir like none you’ve ever read. Stringing together memories, oral family history, old photographs, and vignettes, this deeply poetic work tells the story of her legacy along with her own coming-of-age as a “Dahomey woman” connected to the proud line of strong women before her.

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

No reading list is complete without a James Baldwin title, and The Fire Next Time—the towering intellectual’s two essays detailing the realities of a country still reckoning with violent racial inequality 100 years out from the Emancipation Proclamation—is a must for Juneteenth. This seminal work inspired Ta-Nehisi Coates to write his book-length response in his novel-length letter to his son, Between the World and Me. Coates’s is far from the only response Baldwin’s sermon inspired: this book continues to inform and inspire radical revolt against the racist legacy this country would prefer to look away from.

Revolutionary Suicide, Huey P. Newton

Huey P. Newton was one of the founders of the Black Panther party, and in this autobiography, the famous revolutionary and activist gives viewers an inside look at the formation of the party in 1966 and puts forth ideas about activism and fighting back that we can use in our current fights against injustice today. An empowering, sobering look at what it takes to devote your life to change, Newton’s book remains a vital reminder that apathy and despair are never options for people working to create a better world.

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