How should white Americans observe Juneteenth, now a federal holiday called Juneteenth National Independence Day?
What are we observing? What are we celebrating? What does Juneteenth mean to us?
And—why Juneteenth? What is it about the anniversary of the federal troops arriving in Galveston that makes that the day to remember the end of legal slavery in America? Why not the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, either its signing or its becoming law? Why that day, that moment, that makes it the focus of the story we will tell ourselves about ourselves every year?
But is Juneteenth really the story of what happened in Galveston on the nineteenth day of June, 1865? Is the white general really the center of the story?
Start with the settlement and agricultural development of East Texas, made feasible by the unjust and inhumane institution of slavery. The transfer of Texas from Mexican rule to the United States, largely in order to protect the right of white settlers to control the people they brought there while they were displacing the handful people who already lived there. Go on to the amazing and inspiring fact that the United States fought a war—a war!—to free the enslaved people who lived here. Recognize that much of the country didn’t want to fight that war, but it was fought and won anyway. Think about time between the surrender at Appomattox in April and the arrival of the federales in Galveston in June—Annette Gordon-Reed, in her essays On Juneteenth makes the point that of course they knew that the South had surrendered, and of course the enslaved people of Galveston knew about the earlier Emancipation Proclamation, but they also knew that there was no safety for them in demanding a freedom that they had no way of defending. The part of the story I had never heard until this year was that the XXV Corps, the African-American soldiers who had occupied Richmond, were also in East Texas that week. The story that I came to know centered on Major General Gordon Granger and General Order # 3, which made freedom the actual, legal state of affairs—and immediately advised all freedmen to “remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.”
But don’t stop there: because Juneteenth is not just the story of June 19th, but also the story of Juneteenth. The story of how the formerly-enslaved people of East Texas and their children started commemorating their liberation. The story of the slow spread of prayer services and barbecues, roasted goats and homemade ice cream. The story of how African-Americans gathered a few weeks before the Fourth of July, the parallel Independence Day that I never heard about as a white child. The story of my hearing about it as a white adult. The Federal Government—still dominated by white people, of course—making it official for everybody. That story is still going on. What kind of story will it be?
Perhaps the most amazingly, profoundly, heartbreaking thing about Juneteenth, for me, is that dreadful hope personified in Gordon Granger—that the evils of slavery could end without upsetting the institutions, the social hierarchies, the economic structures, the day-to-day lives of white people. As Frederick Douglass mentions, “as a people, Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in their own favor”. We also have a remarkable capacity for turning our radicals into comfortable heroes, Mr. Douglass to Marsha P. Johnson to Sojourner Truth to Cesar Chavez—finding, somehow, ways for disruptive figures to be coopted into maintaining structures rather than disrupting them. We like liberty, as Americans, as long as we aren’t too liberated.
Our Only President (bless him) has proclaimed it a day of profound weight and power. He attempts to declare it both a day of celebration and a day of remembrance: “Juneteenth marks both the long, hard night of slavery and discrimination, and the promise of a brighter morning to come.” He said that this Juneteenth would be the first that our nation will celebrate all together, as one nation. Will we?
Are we, as white Americans, willing to say: we want to observe Juneteenth, but we don’t yet know how? Are we willing to learn from people who aren’t white, learn humbly, and not make the story about us? Or will we observe it like Gordon Granger, saying “everything has changed, now go back to work on Monday”?
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,