On Juneteenth, I decided to take some time to reflect on why this day has not always been a celebratory one for me. I’ve always associated Juneteenth with picnics, barbecues, and family reunions, but I didn’t grow up learning, understanding or appreciating what Juneteenth is, and I know I’m not alone in this. I had a basic understanding that the day marked the official ending of slavery in Texas, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, but today I’m thinking about what that means: what happened in those two years that were marked by confusion, defiance, and disregard for the law? I’m also reflecting on the social ramifications faced by the south in the wake of slavery’s ending. It’s still shocking to think that for many of us, Reconstruction was left out of our history books, and when I think about this particular point in history I am struck by the evolution of political forces that ultimately dismantled the economic, political and social gains that black Americans achieved after 1865.
As all of these thoughts came to mind, I started to do some research, much of which I’d like to hang onto, so I made myself a Juneteenth syllabus and thought I’d share some of it. This all came about after reading a Slate article by Jamelle Bouie written last year that delves into the complicated politics around Texas, our history, and our knowledge of our collective history. It hints to a lingering code of silence that touches on some of the deep psychological scars that remain today.
After reading the Slate piece I looked at some of Nast’s other political cartoons that centered on inequality and the scales of justice. “Slavery Is Dead?” from 1867 is eerily prescient and remains a biting commentary on how laws are manipulated by those that rely on the blindness of the masses. Juneteenth is yet another reminder that justice is a slow race that is never truly won, it must be fought for continuously and ardently. If we look closely at what’s happening in the world today, especially in our own backyard, we know that the ills we face today have already been faced in the past.
The PBS documentary “Slavery By Another Name” illustrates how federal intervention and the Union’s ultimate disengagement in the south paved the way for southern states to reassert their hatred and power by adopting laws that perpetuated fear, violence and disenfranchisement against African Americans. By doing so, they enforced the racial codes that allowed slavery to persist in new forms. Larceny, walking along a railroad, or “being uppity” were all crimes whose enforcement was discretionary and disproportionately meted to blacks, leading to disastrous, unconscionable outcomes. The documentary juxtaposed against Nast’s cartoon force us to question how we define freedom.
Leon Litwack is a retired U.C. Berkeley professor and Pulitzer prize winner whose book, “Been in the Storm So Long” is usually my first point of reference for first-hand accounts of what life was like in the years that followed slavery. In a 2008 talk he recounts a story of a plantation in Tennessee that was informed of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation—an overseer went out to tell men and women in the fields that they were no longer slaves, and one of them posed a poignantly astute question: “The slaves listened carefully, and one of them thought to ask, ‘How Free?’ Some 137 years later, that question persists…”
In 2012, Litwack provided some additional commentary on our reticence to confront history offering his own warning of the potential costs behind our turning a blind eye to history.
And finally, I return to some of my own thoughts on Juneteenth from last year. With family roots in Texas, I am keenly aware of both the pride and the pain that can come from looking too deeply into the past and I have a deep understanding for those inclined to leave the past where it is, but for me, leaving the past behind leaves it vulnerable to erasure. I will end this post just like I ended my Juneteenth post last year-a little wiser, more humbled, eternally grateful.
“Juneteenth is a day of mixed emotions for me. A wise, dear friend says this is a reminder of how close joy and grief are often connected. The joy comes from thinking of the beautiful history of my family today and the grief is tied to the complexities in knowing and understanding this history. I remain comforted and strengthened by the perseverance and power of our ancestors.”