Juneteenth

There is talk these days about making Juneteenth a national holiday to mark the end of slavery in this country. And while setting a holiday doesn’t end abusive policing or systemic inequality or even microagressions, the history around Juneteenth makes talking about it a useful focus for addressing the racism that white people want to pretend don’t exist.

It could be argued that the day the Emancipation Proclamation became effective — January 1, 1863 — is a more appropriate holiday, since that’s when slavery became illegal in the states that were in rebellion against the United States (though not in the slave states still in the Union, such as Maryland). Though the day of ratification of the 13th Amendment, which legally abolished slavery in the United States — December 6, 1865 — is even more appropriate, because that’s when slavery was legally abolished across the entire country.

But I think Juneteenth makes the most sense. First of all, it is a celebration started by African Americans, who, as the people most affected, should set such dates. The Black people of Galveston began holding celebrations on June 19, 1866. Unlike most holidays, which are set by those in power and often for political reasons, this one came from the people affected. That makes the day powerful.

A bit of history: Juneteenth — June 19, 1865 — is the date the Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas. It was announced at Galveston by a Union general. Texas was the most remote of the southern states, and very little of the war was fought within its boundaries, so it had the smallest Union military presence.

But still, that announcement came two and a half years after the proclamation had been issued. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox two months earlier and the war had officially ended a month previous. The enslaved people of Texas had been legally free for a long time before anyone bothered to tell them.

According to Wikipedia, there were decisions of the Texas Supreme Court into the 1870s enforcing this ruling, which tells me that even though the slave masters knew damn well they were no longer entitled to treat human beings as property, they kept doing it as long as they could. (The Jim Crow history in Texas tells us just how long they have kept doing it.)

Which is to say, Juneteenth demonstrates just how messy the end of slavery was in the United States. If we use that date, we have to acknowledge that there was nothing clean about any of this.

I learned about Juneteenth as a kid, because I’m from Texas. It was celebrated regularly there, and as the Civil Rights Movement changed things, it became one of those celebrations where politicians who wanted the Black vote showed up.

I didn’t realize for a long time that it had become a date of national significance, probably because it never registered on me that Texas was the last place to officially hear about the Emancipation Proclamation. (If you grow up in Texas, you assume it’s the center of the Universe, plus I grew up in the era of mass communication, not in the era when news traveled slowly.)

The celebrations over the years took place in spite of Jim Crow laws and white contempt. The Black people of our country made this holiday and held onto it. That alone is worthy of celebration.

But that’s not enough. That can easily become the feel-good holiday that does absolutely nothing.

What we need from Juneteenth is the messy history it represents, the vile story not just of enslavement in a country supposedly founded on liberty, but the ongoing terror and legal abuse that has continued to the present day, sitting side by side with the celebrations and successes that African Americans have made in spite of those horrors.

If we can look at all that with some honesty, we can begin to build an antiracist country. Had we started building that kind of place on June 19, 1865, instead of allowing white supremacists to control the narrative for the last hundred and fifty-five years, we might be much farther along.

But you can’t fix the past. All you can do is learn from it so you can build a better future.

Think about all that this Juneteenth.

5 thoughts on “Juneteenth

  1. I went to a liberal-leaning school in Greenwich Village, the sort of place that sent students from the High School to the south during the Freedom Summer. And it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I heard of Juneteenth. I remember at the time my first response was disgust that news of their emancipation had been kept from the enslaved people of Texas for so long after the Emancipation Proclamation (30 seconds of thought thereafter brought me to “oh, well, of course, the slave owners had no reason to make an announcement about it”). My second thought was “why didn’t I know about this before?”

    Happy Juneteenth.

  2. I certainly never heard about it in school, where I learned about the evils of reconstruction and was taught that the Civil War was between us and them. The only evil of reconstruction is that they didn’t finish the job, which seems to be a pattern when the U.S. deals with long standing problems.

    1. ^This, right there. As a nation, our tendency to announce “it’s over, we got it done, move on” is currently on display with response to Covid-19… I wonder if there is a way to systemically change the culture so that we finish jobs that we started, rather than flaking out when it’s no longer the top-of-mind problem. Or is it just a human-nature thing.

      1. This time feels different, so I’m hoping we’re going to see some actual change. Be nice if we actually set up completely new public safety systems out of this.
        But as you point out, we’re pretending the pandemic is over when it’s still in the first wave. So who knows.
        I’d like to think human beings are capable of getting beyond this, that it is not just “our nature,” but some days I do wonder. I keep seeing this thing on twitter about “Did people refuse to use seat belts the way they’re refusing to wear masks?” The implication is that they didn’t, when, in fact, people were terrible about wearing seat belts and vociferous in objecting to them. That’s why there are laws requiring you to wear them; people weren’t doing it. (Another argument for government mandate and not recommendations when it comes to masks.)

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