What to Read, Watch, Listen to, and Learn from This Juneteenth

A collection of Black books, podcasts, films, and more to help allies learn more about the important holiday, its history, and how to drive change.

Photo: Getty Images

For far too long, the history of Juneteenth has been overshadowed by the Fourth of July. And while many Americans grew up with fond memories of eating hotdogs, watching fireworks, and donning the colors of the American flag to celebrate the nation's freedom, the truth is that every American wasn't exactly free (or even close to it) on July 4, 1776. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, a founding father and author of the Declaration of Independence, owned 180 slaves at the time (and enslaved over 600 Black people throughout his lifetime). Slavery remained unabolished for another 87 years, and even then, it took two additional years for all slaves to eventually gain their freedom on June 19, 1865 — now known as Juneteenth.

The History Behind Juneteenth

In 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that declared all "persons held as slaves" within the rebellious Confederate states "henceforward shall be free." Ready to learn something that may have been omitted from your textbooks? While this was a monumental feat for Black people (the Proclamation meant freedom for over 3 million slaves), emancipation didn't apply to all slaves. It only applied to places under Confederate control and not to slave-holding border states or rebel areas under Union control.

The Texas Constitution of 1836 also granted additional protection to slaveholders while further limiting the rights of slaves. With very little Union presence in Texas, many slave owners decided to move to the state with their slaves, thus allowing slavery to continue. However, on June 19, 1865, U.S. Army officer and Union major general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, announcing that all slaves were officially free — a change that impacted 250,000 Black lives forever.

Why and How You Should Celebrate Juneteenth

Juneteenth, short for "June 19," commemorates the end of legal slavery in America and symbolizes the strength and resilience of Black Americans. And on June 17, 2021, the White House (finally) declared Juneteenth a federal holiday. This celebration is not only tied to Black history but it's directly woven into the thread of American history. In the wake of modern civil unrest and heightened racial tensions, Juneteenth (also known as Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, or Jubliee Day) has befittingly gained a bigger, even global spotlight.

To help capture the true essence, significance, and history of Juneteenth, below is a list of podcasts, books, documentaries, movies, and TV shows for you to delve into — not just in celebration of Juneteenth, but beyond the holiday. While this list of recommendations is not exhaustive, it will hopefully empower you to learn more about the unsung stories of Black revolutions in order to uplift Black voices and fight for true equality for all.

cover image of the Code Switch podcast
Courtesy of NPR

Podcasts to Queue

Louder Than a Riot

Hosted by Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael, Louder Than a Riot explores the intersection between the rise of hip-hop and mass incarceration in America. Each episode zeroes in on an artist's story to examine different aspects of the criminal justice system that disproportionately affects Black Americans and, in doing so, reshapes negative narratives about hip-hop and its ties to the Black community. (Black people are incarcerated at over five times the rate of their White counterparts, according to the NAACP.) This podcast uses a genre of music that has been adored by people of various backgrounds to expose what many Black Americans have seen played out time and again with police brutality, discriminative legal tactics, and demeaning media depictions. You can check out Louder Than a Riot on NPR One, Apple, Spotify, and Google.

Into America

MSNBC's podcast Into America launched in the spring of 2020 as a show about politics and policy. The show's creators shifted the show's focus to the Black experience in America, in hopes of sharing "the stories the country needs to hear in a moment [everyone needs] to hear them." Throughout each show, host Trymaine Lee interviews a new guest about a topic that affects the Black community. Expect to feel both informed and entertained during the episodes, which have previously covered the conditions in Texas' state prisons, influential Black fashion designers, the conversation around Kanye West's mental health, and more. Listen to Into America on Apple, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Castbox, or TuneIn.

More podcasts to tune in to:

cover of the fiction book Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Courtesy of Amazon

Fiction Books to Read

Queenie By Candice Carty-Williams

Named one of Time's 100 must-read books of 2019, Candice Carty-Williams' fearless debut follows Queenie Jenkins, a Jamaican-British woman trying to balance between two completely different cultures while not really fitting into either. At her job as a newspaper reporter, she's constantly forced to compare herself to her White peers. Then, a mid the craziness of her day-to-day, her longtime White boyfriend decides to ask for a "break." In an attempt to rebound from her messy breakup, the 25-year-old journalist careens from one questionable decision to another, all while trying to figure out her purpose in life — a question most people will find relatable. The tell-it-like-it-is novel encapsulates what it means to be a Black girl existing in mostly White spaces when your world is falling apart. Although the smart, yet sensitive protagonist deals with mental health struggles, internalized racism, and workplace bias, she eventually finds the strength to put it all back together.

The Kindest Lie By Nancy Johnson

A book club favorite, The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson tells the story of engineer Ruth Tuttle and her journey to reconcile a shame-filled past riddled with secrets in an effort to start a family of her own. Set during the Great Recession and the beginning of a new era of hope following President Obama's first presidential win, this novel comments on race, class, and family dynamics. While her husband is eager to begin a family, Ruth is uncertain; she's still haunted by the decision she made as a teenager to leave her son behind. And so she returns to her estranged family in the recession-stricken town of Ganton, Indiana, to make peace with her past — a process that ultimately forces her to grapple with her own demons, discover long-hidden lies among her family, and face the racially charged town she escaped years ago. The Kindest Lie is a compelling embodiment of the nuances of growing up in a Black, working-class family in America and the intricate connections between race and class.

More fiction books to read:

cover of the nonfiction book The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah Jones
Courtesy of Amazon

Nonfiction Books to Study

The New Jim Crow By Michelle Alexander

A New York Times bestseller (it spent nearly 250 weeks on the paper's bestseller list), The New Jim Crow explores race-related issues specific to Black men and mass incarceration in the United States and explains how the nation's criminal justice system works against Black people. Author, civil rights litigator, and legal scholar Michelle Alexander demonstrates that, by targeting Black men through the "war on drugs" and destroying communities of color, America's justice system serves as a present-day system of racial control (the new Jim Crow, if you will) — even as it adheres to the belief of colorblindness. First published in 2010, The New Jim Crow has been cited in judicial decisions and has been adopted in campus-wide and community-wide reads.

The Fire Next Time By James Baldwin

Written by the esteemed writer, poet, and activist, James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time is a poignant evaluation of race relations in America during the mid-20th century. A national bestseller when it was first released in 1963, the book consists of two "letters" (essentially essays) that share Baldwin's views on the poor conditions of Black Americans. The first letter is a strikingly honest yet compassionate warning to his young nephew on the perils of being Black in America and the "twisted logic of racism." The second and most noteworthy letter is written to all Americans. It delivers a dire warning of the disastrous effects of racism in America — and so much of it, unfortunately, rings very true today. Baldwin's writing does not shy away from any of the ugly truths about the Black plight. It holds each of its readers accountable through self-examination and a call for forwarding progress.

More nonfiction books to read:

cover image for the film Two Distant Strangers
Courtesy of IMDb

Movies and TV Shows to Watch


Becoming, the Netflix documentary based in part on Michelle Obama's bestselling memoir, shares an intimate look into the former First Lady's life before and after her eight years in the White House. It takes viewers behind the scenes of her book tour; offers a glance at her relationship with her husband, former president Barack Obama; and captures candid moments with daughters, Malia and Sasha. As the United States' first Black FLOTUS, Michelle inspired women of all backgrounds with her beautiful brilliance, courageous tenacity, and contagious positivity. The Becoming doc illustrates her story of hard work, determination, and triumph.

Two Distant Strangers

This Academy Award–winning short film is a must-watch for, well, everyone. And being that it's a Netflix original and just 30 minutes long, there's truly no excuse not to add Two Distant Strangers to your queue. The flick follows the main character as he endures a tragic encounter with a White police officer over and over again in a time loop. Despite its heavy topic, Two Distant Strangers remains lighthearted and inspiring all while allowing audiences an inside look at what the world looks like for many Black Americans every day — which is especially important in light of the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and too many more. Two Distant Strangers finds itself right at the intersection of the hard truths of the present and a hopeful resolve for the future.

More films and episodes to watch:

Ayo Tometi
Getty Images

People to Follow

Alicia Garza

Alicia Garza is an organizer, writer, public speaker, senior advisor of strategy for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and principal at Black Futures Lab. But Garza's already-impressive resume doesn't stop there: She's best known for co-founding the international Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Since the rise of BLM, she has become a powerful voice in the media. Follow Garza to learn more about her work to end police brutality and violence against trans and gender non-conforming people of color. Do you hear that? That's Garza's many calls to action to help put an end to America's legacy of racism and discrimination.

Ayọ Tometi

Ayọ Tometi (formerly known as Opal Tometi) is an American human rights activist, organizer, and writer who is most known for her role in co-founding the Black Lives Matter movement (along with Garza) and her time as the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (the U.S.'s first national immigrant rights organization for people of African descent). The award-winning activist uses her voice and extensive reach to advocate for human rights across the globe and to educate people on such matters. Follow Tometi for a measured mixture of call-to-action activism and Black girl magic — both of which will get you out of your chair and eager to join her in bettering the world.

Keep Up with These Black Leaders Too:

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