What, to the White American, is Juneteenth?
It isn't just a time to pay tribute to Black American history, or to virtue signal. It is a day to recognize that rebuilding democracy is both struggle and joy
Happy Juneteenth, everyone! The federal holiday is today, so let’s pause to contemplate a moment when Texas was forced to acknowledge that it had lost the Civil War and that formerly enslaved Black Americans were now free. Do you know someone who would like to join us?
To paraphrase Frederick Douglass’s famous 1852 speech, What, to the white American, is Juneteenth? And here’s the answer: everything.
Let’s begin with the historical realities of June 19, 1865, and this proclamation:
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.
With these words, on June 19, 1865, a white officer, the Union Army’s General Gordon Granger, confronted white Texans with reality. They had lost the war, and those they had held in bondage were now free. Legally, Black Texans had already been free for 30 months, ever since Abraham Lincoln had emancipated all enslaved people held captive in states that were in rebellion on January 1, 1863. Slavery became unconstitutional six months after Granger arrived: Congress passed the 13th amendment to the Constitution on December 6, 1865.
But Granger’s proclamation also delivered a harsh warning to the formerly enslaved people of Texas, revealing white ambivalence about Black freedom as it had cohered over the past 20 months. The “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves” that Granger proclaimed was contradicted in the very same sentence. White and Black, enslaver and enslaved, would be replaced by “employer and hired labor.”
In other words, the proclamation did not imagine the future of freedom for Black people as they imagined it: working for themselves and perhaps even hiring labor to work for them. Nor, Granger warned, were Black Texans to do what other freedpeople were already doing: leave places where they had been abused, exploited, and raped to travel across the South, search for family members who had been sold elsewhere, or seek work from the occupying Army. Instead, these freedpeople (all imagined as “freedmen”) were told to stay put, to “remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.” To become independent of white people, regardless of how hard Black people worked for themselves, would be to indulge in “idleness.”
Thus, to use Granger’s words, free Black people were not actually entitled to “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property.” That had never existed in the United States, even in states where slavery had been eliminated or never established. In 1844, 1849, and 1857, Oregon passed laws that prohibited Black people from moving to the state. Emancipation policies in states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey passed early in the 19th century had been predicated on long periods of indenture that replaced slavery with unpaid apprenticed and contracted labor. Although New Jersey passed a law mandating abolition in 1804, it was so gradual that some Black freedpeople remained legally bound to individual whites for the rest of their lives. An elderly few remained indentured for months after June 19, 1865. The state was so hostile to its Black residents that it did not even pass the 13th amendment until a month after it had become law.
And yet, as Annette Gordon-Reed, who has written an extraordinary memoir about her youth as a Black Texan, reminds us: these contradictions and painful constraints existed alongside an unimaginable joy when Granger posted his proclamation. June 19 was the beginning of liberation from white domination. “As a historian, you imagine what the time was like when enslaved people saw Black soldiers in uniform coming as liberators to change the world for them,” Gordon-Reed explained yesterday on MSNBC. “It didn’t change completely. They knew they were in for a struggle because they knew who they were dealing with, right?” She continued, “But the idea, the aspirational notion of that, is something that we are still fighting for. That links the holiday to some of the stuff that’s going on today.”
Juneteenth, Gordon-Reed implied, can be a holiday for all of us, a day when the whole nation can contemplate not just the path to full, Black freedom but how that freedom undergirds justice for all. “We’re at a turning point in this country, and we’re trying to decide what kind of people we actually are,” she explained about how the past can speak to the present, “and the question of Black citizenship has always been up for grabs, and it’s still up for grabs, and that’s what we’re fighting for.”
But, as Gordon-Reed notes, that fight does not exist and cannot thrive in the absence of joy. Think, for a moment, of one of the finest books to be written about Reconstruction, Princeton historian Tera Hunter’s To `Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors After the Civil War (Harvard, 1998). Black women endured any number of hardships to liberate themselves, their partners, and their children from being controlled by whites. This was what it meant to not just pass into a new stage of life but to enjoy their freedom. As Martha Jones notes in Vanguard (Basic Books, 2020), another aspect of what it meant to enjoy freedom was for a woman to be seen, not just as human but, in the words of Anna Julia Cooper, in “the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood.”
Alicia Keys, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” September 12, 2020/YouTube
So despite the continuation of white domination, Black men and women celebrated June 19 in the years following Emancipation. The century that followed was filled with disappointment and violence, but also joy and love. Black Americans also embraced liberties that even the meanest whites had enjoyed before 1865: the right to become literate and educated, to marry, to vote, to worship freely, and to move freely about the country if need be. And in each of these rights, however hard-won or tenuous, there was another kind of joy: the joy of turning one’s face to the future, imagining that better things are possible and how they might be obtained.
Now imagine extending the lesson of Juneteenth to everyone, regardless of race, everyone who believes in truth, justice, and democracy. Our larger fight is inextricable from the struggle for full Black citizenship. In that vein, we also must never neglect joy, and we should never fail to enjoy the freedom we have to fight for a more perfect union.
One of those freedoms is to continue the struggle against injustice, inequality, violence, and right-wing politicians who are, once again, attempting to undermine democratic rule.
How does that become an opportunity for joy, you ask? I am reminded of New Jersey Democratic Senator Corey Booker’s great speech at the end of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s grueling Supreme Court hearing, a travesty in which she was forced to listen to endless insults, misrepresentations, conspiracy theories, and attacks from the white descendants of those who conspired to keep her ancestors in captivity. Acknowledging what Jackson endured, Booker smiled at her and said, one Ivy League graduate to another: “And you’re here.”
As silent tears began to fall down Jackson’s face (and mine, by the way—my eyes sting again even as I write this), Booker insisted that, despite the racism of the hearings, “Nobody’s stealing my joy!” He continued:
When I first came to this place I was the fourth black person ever popularly elected to the United States Senate, and I still remember a lot of mixed people – white folks, Black folks – work here, but at night when people are in line to come in to clean this place, the percentage of minorities shift a lot. So I’m walking here, first week I’m here, and somebody’s been here for decades doing the urgent work of the Senate, but it’s the unglamorous work that goes on no matter who’s in offices, guy comes up to me and all he wants to say, I can tell, is “I’m so happy you’re here.” But he comes up, he can’t get the words out, and this man, my elder, starts crying. And I just hugged him and he just kept telling me, “It’s so good to see you here; it’s so good to see you here. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
I love my brother [Senator] Tim Scott, we could write a dissertation on our disagreements. He gave the best speech on race – I wish I could have given as good of a speech – but talking to the challenges and indignities that are still faced. And you’re here.
I was in the White House with my Democratic colleagues – and again, I’m in my joy; I can’t help it – and the president is asking for advice, who should be nominated, whatever. And I look at Kamala, and we have a knowing glance, which we’ve had for years when she and I used to sit on this end of this committee, at times. And then I try to get out to the president what it means—what it means.
“But don’t worry, my sister, don’t worry,” Booker said. “God has got you. And how do I know that? You’re here, and I know what it’s taken for you to sit in that seat.”
White Americans are not just former enslavers and abolitionists, nor does the history that the vast majority of whites share—to have built lives on the back of Black labor and the Black struggle for 400 years in ways visible and invisible—determine our future. As those formerly enslaved people did in Galveston on June 19, 1865, we must begin by reckoning with the imperfection of the present (a word that hardly seems to describe the America we have lived in since 2016) and turn our faces to the future, believing each step towards freedom matters.
God has got us, my brothers and sisters. Happy Juneteenth. The fight begins again every day.
In 1857, in perhaps one of the first major urban renewal projects, New York City ejected about 1600 people from the land that would become Central Park: 225 of them were free African Americans living in Seneca Village. As Lola Fadulu of The New York Times writes, these New Yorkers had moved north after emancipation in 1827 to enjoy their freedom by creating a self-governing community. The thriving community “had not only houses but gardens, churches and a school,” writes Fadulu, citing historian Marie Warsh said. “Many people were landowners and had the right to vote.” Yesterday, Black New Yorkers, including Mayor Eric Adams, gathered to celebrate. (June 19, 2022)
“When I look at our nation today, 157 years later, I wonder – is this what generations of slaves longed for?” asks theologian Keith Magee at The Root. IN a stirring essay, Magee distinguishes between being free and being free to access and use the full rights guaranteed to Americans by the Constitution. “So, on this year’s Juneteenth holiday, I will be praying that every American who longs for freedom, whether their ancestors were enslaved or not, finds the strength to continue to agitate and to legislate.” (June 19, 2022)
At TheGrio, political strategist Donna Brazile reflects on the life of actor Hattie McDaniel, how her achievements were circumscribed by American racism, and why freedom evolves because of the efforts of those who were never permitted to grasp it fully. “I imagine if you told Miss Hattie that in the early 21st century, America would have a Black president, a Black female vice president, and soon to be Black female Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and Black people in other high-level positions in the real world and in the movies, she would think that was an impossible dream,” Brazile reminds us. (June 19, 2022)
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Good history shared here. Yesterday PBS did a promo for production with Henry Louis Gates. I really liked his comment that Juneteenth should be seen as a celebration, not just for Black folk, but one for freedom of all people. Big hearted man that he is!
Thanks for this. I wish more white people understood that we are all in the struggle together. Cory Booker's speech made me cry also. I am so proud to have him as my senator!