Michaeline: Juneteenth — and don’t you forget it

Today is Juneteenth, America’s newest federal holiday. (NPR) From what I’ve read, the day is not so much about freedom, as it is about the long, terrible road that enslaved people had to walk to get to freedom, and the struggle to stay in a state of freedom.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Memorable words that helped found a nation, written by an enslaver.

I ran across this excerpt by Clint Smith on The Paris Review Twitter account this morning, and if you haven’t read it, you should. Beautiful writing, and it explains what exactly happened on Juneteenth, and illustrates how it can resonate with Black Americans today. Here’s his tweet. Clint’s excerpt from How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America is set on the Galveston, TX, plantation where enslaved people learned of their freedom in 1865.  

Greedy people who valued pretty dresses and a big house over the lives of fellow human beings stained US history with this atrocity, and too many people just went along with it and let it happen. Lest we forget . . . lest we let it happen again. Let’s remember Juneteenth.

PART TWO:

The contemporary white views in Galveston were pretty outrageous. Flake’s Weekly Bulletin of Galveston (Wednesday morning, July 19, 1865) complained on the front page of being accused of sucking up to the authorities in charge. It’s clear, though, that their sympathies are with the white people and the old system, although they take issue with the rebel leaders who they accuse of leading them into the mess of war and privation.

On page 2 (top of sixth column) of the newspaper, General Granger (who read General Order No. 3 to the enslaved people) is discussed. The paper is concerned that the cotton and corn is good, and the grapes are coming in . . . but if the planters stand firm and don’t hire people from other plantations, the formerly enslaved will have no choice but to work or starve.

“A few months delay would have saved some millions of dollars to the planters in the incoming crops, by securing the promising harvest; and some thousands of lives that the sudden change exposes to all the ills of the hot and sickly season.” Yeah, right. If only General Granger had delayed a few more months (never mind the years that had already passed since the enslaved were freed), I’m sure the planters would have sent the healthy Black people off with a nice percentage of the millions, and wished them well. (No, I do not think that for one moment.)

The parallels to the recent Jan. 6 sedition are striking. The paper cast legal doubt on the proclamation freeing the enslaved. They blame “false teachings of corrupt leaders” for people participating in the secession from the States. The heart (by which I think they mean the paper’s editorial staff and most white Galvestonians) “weeps over the stern necessity that dictates their (the warmongers) humiliation.” Oh, boo-effing-hoo.

But I suppose the editors of the newspaper had to tread that line between pleasing the federal authorities, and living with their neighbors. I’m not excusing them. It’s important to read these expressions of white supremacy. It made me realize just how much the arguments white supremacy puts forth really haven’t changed in all those years.

So when I say we shouldn’t forget, I mean not only what was done, but who was doing it and how. Juneteenth is a day to remember.

(I also recommend historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s excellent article, “What is Juneteenth?” for extra perspective.)

6 thoughts on “Michaeline: Juneteenth — and don’t you forget it

  1. Michaeline,thanks for a thoughtful post. It would be nice to think that, as compassionate humans, people would never behave so badly now, but a glance at the news shows we don’t appear to have improved much at all. I’m glad Juneteenth has been designated a holiday so that we can remember and (hopefully)learn from the past.

    • I think any time has its greedy, selfish people who can’t think past their own personalities. And every time has others who think about their communities and their known worlds. As for myself, I mean well, and I find it difficult to believe everyone doesn’t mean well, too . . . despite all the evidence to the contrary. So much education I have to do to make sure my well-meaning translates into good actions, not naive ones, I guess.

    • I wish it wasn’t divisive, but as my mom used to say, “If wishes were horses . . . .” When we make life comfortable for everyone, and give everyone a chance to shine, it really does help all of us in the long run. For all the ills of 1970s education, they did teach us about people who made a difference — Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver. People who had to fight against racism to make a difference. What greater contributions could they have made if they didn’t have to deal with the racism? Tubman could have been a community organizer. Carver could have done even more scientific discovery.

  2. Great posts and links, Michaeline. What’s disappointing but not surprising is that legislators like Mitch McConnell vote in favor of establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday while doing all they can to limit voting rights. Juneteenth is a nice gesture, but it’s not nearly enough.

    • Mitch McConnell has been showing us who he is for years. I think I agree with what you are saying, and I hope I’m not putting words into your mouth, but while lip service is better than no service, we MUST recdognize it for what it is — a signpost, not an achievement (well, besides getting the signpost up. It’s not the end of the struggle.)

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