On the morning of the 19th of June 1865, Galveston existed in a space between war and peace. The Confederacy had surrendered, but fighting continued. Slavery had become illegal—and the people who had suffered it were still enslaved. The Union had prevailed, but there in Galveston, on the morning of the 19th of June 1865, there was no actual evidence on the ground that they were now in a nation of liberty and equality, with justice for all. A tremendously layered metaphor for America, Juneteenth is. The terrible irony of that proclamation, when Gordon Granger came to occupy Texas with federal troops and declare the freedom of all slaves, going on to admonish: “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.” Those who didn’t were mostly killed, of course. Lynched as free men.
American history, and perhaps all human history, tells us that every triumph holds hands with an atrocity, every atrocity brings forth beauty, every beauty wars with horror, and every horror is our very own. Today we guard children in detention camps who will live with that trauma all their lives; today we provide medical care and succor and a measure of temporary safety to those same children. The searing horror of our policy of deterrence aims to make our America less of a beacon on a hill precisely because it has been such a beacon—our ideals burn so brightly that they can be seen everywhere even as our grasp of those ideals is a humiliating failure. And so it has always been in the land of liberty that could not even be bothered to tell the slaves of Galveston for months on end that the war for their freedom had been won.
On this terrible Juneteenth morning, we have to look, not clear-eyed but with angry tears, at our country and say with the poet:
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
That’s our dream. It’s a great phrase, the American Dream. So much easier in the mouth than American reality. So much more powerful.
We live—I think always we live in that morning of Juneteenth. We hold a terrible secret: There is no enemy to fight. The Rebels have surrendered long ago. Nobody wanted to talk about it. Now we are compelled to admit: we have held on to our injustices, our crimes, our shameful pleasures and treasures long past the time that there was any hope of being vindicated by some future victory. America will never truly be America, but we can aspire to be America only by knowing in our bones that America never was America. We can redeem the lies of justice, equality and freedom only by working to make them come true for everyone. That work will never end. The redemption is in the work and the aspiration and the fight.
Juneteenth to me, as a white American patriot, is a day to hold in my head as much as I can the gap between our dream and our reality, the appalling and inspiring simultaneity of damnation and grace. Today we sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, and the dark present, and indeed the dark future. Today we sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us, that hope of light no less real than the darkness, even knowing that yesterday’s hope remains largely unfulfilled. Today we face the rising sun of our new day begun, the truth of a harsh light, yes, and a new day of bitter knowledge, but under a sun that has shone a harsher light on even bitterer knowledge, and will again. Today we march on until victory is won, and lost, and won again. Juneteenth marks both a tremendous victory and also a tremendous failure—and is another opportunity for us to face new failures and make new victories. The lesson of Juneteenth is this: we hold the keys to the kingdom, and we always have, and we always will.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,