On June 18, 2021, Juneteenth became a federal holiday. For many many Black Americans who have celebrated Juneteenth as the oldest Black American holiday, it is a celebration of Black perseverance, of the culture we built in the crucible of oppression, of the families we created and of our right to be both Black and American. For others, who were more recently introduced to this mostly Southern tradition, Juneteenth is a welcome correction to the myth of Black independence on July 4th; a celebration reminiscent of our annual family reunions, connecting relatives across geographies, solidifying relationships, getting to know each other and yes, holding cookouts. Juneteenth is a reunion of us all.
But there are many, like myself, who worry about Juneteenth’s meaning being distorted by an America that seeks to erase Black history from public schools and libraries, where voting rights are under attack, and where systemic and institutionalized racism still exist in towns, and cities and rural communities..
Will the national big-tent of Juneteenth celebrations obscure the sad and sacred remembrance of Black emancipation and the annual awareness of all that is left unfinished?
Already, I cringe at the distorted retelling of the history of Juneteenth, explained as the date when unknowing slaves were informed of their freedom, two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s preposterous to believe the mere telling of this truth made the difference between slavery and freedom, and that armed with only this knowledge, the former enslaved would have been allowed to walk away, without resistance.
Here are some salient facts:
- On April 12, 1861, confederate troops fired on Fort Sumpter, South Carolina, which launched the nation into a four-year battle that cost the lives of about 680,000 soldiers.
- On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that “all persons held as slaves within the rebellious states are and henceforth shall be free.”
- On June 19,1865, Major General Gordon Granger led union troops to Galveston Texas to announce the end of slavery.
Confederate states sacrificed hundreds of thousands of people in the battle to protect an economy built on the torture, maiming, rape and dehumanization of African people.Enslaved Africans would never be freed without a fight and about 150,000 were relocated to Texas during the run-up to the civil war to ensure their continued captivity and to rebuff emancipation. General Gordon Granger and his troops arrived to announce emancipation and to enforce laws that Texas slavers worked hard to evade.
Some will say I’m splitting hairs. Does it really matter whom the army intended to inform: the enslaved or the slaver? What if the message was intended for both parties?
For me, there is a seismic difference between telling a captor they must release their victim and telling the captive they are free. Is captivity a choice? The suggestion reminds me of a quote falsely attributed to Harriet Tubman that feeds into this notion: “I could have freed a thousand more if they only knew they were slaves.” This false quote seems to draw on the mythology of the happy slave: the brainwashed, uneducated, and unintelligent person who could not comprehend the brutality of his lived condition.
Certainly, some people became acculturated to forced labor but that is not the whole or most important story.
Enslaved Africans worked collectively – drawing on their direct or inherited memories – to develop cultural practices that helped them survive slavery and its incessant trauma. And enslaved Africans never stopped fighting for their freedom. They stagednumerous rebellions and invented strategies for escape. During the civil war, both free and escaped Africans joined the Union Army and their vigorous fight helped propel the South to freedom.
On July 9, 1868, freed Africans became Americans with the passage of the 14th Amendment. Both during and after the reconstruction period that followed, Black Americans have worked to build farms, houses, churches, schools, businesses, and whole communities. Black Americans have organized, advocated, fought, and sued for the passage of civil rights legislation and demanded our seat at the table.
Juneteenth is a celebration of that determination, resilience and unswerving insistence. It’s a recognition that freedom – the dream of Africans since we were brought here – is not given. It must be taken, by those to whom it has been denied.
African Americans know this, and must protect that truth in the context of a federal Juneteenth holiday that threatens to obscure, or deny it.