Juneteenth’s viral moment and its future
Jun 19, 2024

Juneteenth’s viral moment and its future

Yale University's Brandon Ogbunu reflects on how Juneteenth became a viral moment in 2020, its status as a national holiday and the online discourse surrounding it.

Shortly after the Union won the Civil War in 1865, a Union major general issued an order: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

June 19, known as Juneteenth, has long been celebrated by African Americans. But in 2020, in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, Juneteenth took the internet by storm.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with Brandon Ogbunu, professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale, who wrote about that moment for WIRED back then. He revisited what was happening at that time a year before Juneteenth became a national holiday.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Brandon Ogbunu: There were a lot of conversations that were happening about who gets to be represented, who is disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. And there was an overlap in the social justice conversations between the George Floyd protests and what was happening in terms of health access and health equity and health disparities in the United States around the pandemic. So in this moment, I think, Juneteenth, which happened in the summer, just as all of this stuff was getting revving up and really getting going, it became the singular moment for everyone to kind of stop and reflect on what it meant to be an American, what citizenship was, and have we achieved the goals that were kind of articulated during and after emancipation? And you know, the answer is, no. We have a long way to go. And we saw that reflected in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 in certain communities, native communities, black communities, Latinx communities and Pacific Islander communities.

Lily Jamali: And what you just laid out was everywhere on social media, we were seeing people talking about it, that dialogue was there. What kind of data do you remember seeing that showed just how viral Juneteenth had become in 2020?

Ogbunu: We saw with regards to Juneteenth, No. 1, it kind of always has this spike in frequency, kind of around the holiday so everyone kind of starts talking about it a little bit.

Jamali: Around June 19 of every year?

Ogbunu: June 19, every year, more or less, then it kind of goes away, and then it comes back. But in 2020, the bump was way higher than it had been. It had this very, very, very, very large spike in mentions across social media platforms that I was able to kind of identify using a set of computational tools. And this reflects, what I kind of think was a moment that captured a lot of the different tensions that were happening across these different vectors in the United States in the world, and so the it took on even more importance. Here we have a day when we can sit and talk and reflect and feel and measure and compare and think critically about where we are as a country.

Jamali: You have also written about the role of Black Twitter. Can you talk about how powerful Black Twitter has been as a force and maybe where it is now?

Ogbunu: Yeah, no, I think a lot of this goes back to Jason Parham’s excellent work for Wired, who kind of wrote this famous people’s history of Black Twitter, and has been the person who really kind of brought that conversation to light. Black Twitter is kind of one of the most important forces and conglomerates in all of social media. And I think it transcends just Twitter. I think it spans different social media platforms, but it’s this nebulous but still very, very powerful and present collection of individuals who often use humor and satire to kind of make a point. And Black Twitter can elevate ideas, it can squash ideas. It’s cancelled individuals. It’s made people famous, and it can do so in relatively short term. Now, during the pandemic, when we were all frightened and we didn’t know it was happening, right? Black Twitter was critical for as like anaesthetising force. It really, really made us feel calm. It made us laugh. You might have heard “Moderna mommy,” as a nickname for the vaccine. You might have heard the “panorama,” “the panini,” these nicknames for the pandemic. And the idea is that was Black Twitter, kind of processing what was happening at the moment. And I think Juneteenth is something that this demographic recognizes, many of them have celebrated for many, many years, and so because this demographic and this conglomerate had kind of come to prominence during the pandemic, Juneteenth as a moment kind of rode this wave. And that’s another reason why you see all that amplified signal during during 2020.

Jamali: Do you think that Juneteenth would go viral today the way it did in that moment, in 2020 given where we are as a country, but also given how social media has changed and how the internet has changed?

Ogbunu: I think in 2024 I would say definitely not. And while there remains a very, very strong and robust kind of social justice movement happening, the attention has been turned to the Middle East and Gaza. But I think now the domestic conversation around second class citizenship has mostly become diluted and it’s dissipated, and it isn’t quite where it was four years ago, the holiday has kind of already been kind of swallowed up into the shopping machine. So we’re already seeing the Juneteenth sales, really there’s some disappointment when I look at kind of what’s happened with the holiday, even kind of in just the first few iterations. And so I would not expect it to be viral in 2024.

Jamali: And to the point you just made, you wrote at the time in Wired in 2020, “you don’t need to be a cynic to predict the widespread adoption of Juneteenth will transform serious reflection on slavery into a day of cookouts, cornhole and laptop sales on Amazon.” That line really stood out to me but does getting Juneteenth on the calendar still, does it represent a meaningful push towards something bigger, towards that real reconciliation that you talked about in your piece back then? 

Ogbunu: I think there’s something deeply powerful about federal holidays, and while it may not be what I would have hoped for it to be in 2024, it’s the beginning of a conversation and not the end of one. You know, it’s a lot of these things, from statues to who gets to be on a stamp. All of these things can be symbolic and pointless, but I’m not of that cynical ilk. I think when it’s on the calendar and the country formally recognizes it, it’s there. Now, what we do with it is up to us. And I’m hopeful that schools properly engage this holiday as a sort of Independence Day, in the sense that this is the celebration of everyone’s independence, and not only one demographic. So, you know, I’m hopeful for what’s to come. It just depends on what we do with it.

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