The concept of education is one of the core elements of Juneteenth. While the holiday serves as a celebration of the end of slavery in the U.S., June 19th is not the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, nor does it mark the end of the Civil War. Rather, it commemorates the day that slaves in Galveston, TX finally learned that they were free, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, more than two months after the Civil War ended. Things can change on paper, but without educating the masses, those changes are much slower in practice.
Juneteenth has been celebrated by the Black community for generations, and it became an official national holiday after President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, but back before the celebration was officially recognized, The Roots and ABC‘s Black-ish did their part in getting the word out about Juneteenth with an informative 2017 episode of the popular sitcom.
The episode, titled “Juneteenth”, ponders why Americans celebrate Columbus Day instead of holidays more relevant to North American history. The writers went for hot-button topics right out of the gate, using allusions to Schoolhouse Rock and some help from The Roots and Aloe Blacc to teach audiences about misconceptions regarding slavery and the treatment of Black people throughout our country’s history.
In the episode, the Johnsons attend a Columbus-themed school play featuring the family’s young twins where patriarch Dre (Anthony Anderson) takes issue with some of the production’s historical inaccuracies—namely, that the Italian explorer discovered (or even set foot in) North America—and dramatically pulls his kids off the stage. At work the next day, Dre decides to use his frustration for creative good, recruiting Aloe Blacc to write a song that accurately portrays Columbus’s legacy, and the ordeal leaves Dre wondering why “we celebrate a horrible man when we don’t even acknowledge important moments in our own history like Juneteenth.”
When he’s met with blank stares regarding “Juneteenth,” the show helps educate Dre’s coworkers about this important event in American history with help from animated versions of The Roots. The tune is modeled after Schoolhouse Rock favorite “I’m Just A Bill”.
The episode also heavily references Broadway phenomenon Hamilton, with the cast performing several musical numbers (produced by Fonzworth Bentley) that portray historical events through theatrically dramatized hip-hop numbers. Below, watch The Roots’ educational Juneteenth “I’m Just A Bill” parody, “I Am A Slave”.
For a more substantive discussion about the complex significance of Juneteenth for Black Americans and modern society as a whole, revisit Live For Live Musics’s illuminating 2021 interview with Robert Randolph about the holiday here.
The Roots – “I Am A Slave” – Black-ish Juneteenth Episode
Watch the official clip from Black-ish released by ABC, which features the second half of the Roots’ parody and the show’s narrative punchline below.
[Originally published 10/5/17]