Celebrating Juneteenth

In 1963, the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, James Baldwin published his searing classic “The Fire Next Time.” In the first of the two essays in the book, a letter to his nephew, Baldwin writes, “You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.”

Today Juneteenth is the day we commemorate Texas’ enslaved celebrating their emancipation two years, five months and 18 days too late. That’s how long it took for word to reach them on June 19, 1865, in Galveston Bay by way of Gen. Gordon Granger.

But long before Juneteenth would be recognized as a federal holiday, word of their new freedom was like every holiday rolled into one.

It was New Year’s Eve because of the celebration it ignited.

It was New Year’s Day because it signaled a new beginning.

It was Mother’s Day and Father’s Day because newly freed parents began looking for their children who’d been taken from them and sold, and children began searching for the parents from whom they’d been stolen.

It was the Fourth of July because Frederick Douglass was right when he said the original Fourth of July meant nothing to America’s enslaved because they weren’t declared free. For Texas’ enslaved, the Emancipation Proclamation was their Declaration of Independence, and Juneteenth was the first day they began to see new meaning and the possibility of inclusion in the Fourth of July.

It was Thanksgiving because the God of their weary years, the God of their silent tears, had finally delivered them along this stony road to freedom.

And it delivered the United States a little further up the stony road of democracy because the first Juneteenth was in the era of Reconstruction and this nation’s first attempt at a multiracial democracy. However, this fledgling endeavor was short-lived and violently ended by the white supremacy of Black Codes, Jim Crow, the convict-lease system and all the legal and extralegal ways in which slavery’s brutality and oppression could be duplicated and inflicted on future generations of Black Americans.

The United States would not become a true democracy until 100 years after the first Juneteenth, 102 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, with passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet this crowning achievement of the civil rights movement has been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court as state legislatures across the nation have made it more difficult to vote.

There are politicians who will, today, offer platitudes about honoring Juneteenth even as they betray the spirit of Juneteenth.

When Granger sailed away from Galveston Bay, he left behind no back wages for the labor of the formerly enslaved Texans who helped create the state’s wealth. Nor were they compensated for the barbarity they endured for generations.

Like emancipated people across the country, they were merely left with dreams of full citizenship and opportunity often denied and delayed.

The heart of Juneteenth beats to the rhythm of family and freedom. Black family reunions were held this past weekend because the first thing Black people did when freed was try to find their people.

It is a time to celebrate a freedom once won but also to contemplate a democracy still not fully secured.

* Guest editorial excerpt by the San Antonio Express-News, Texas.


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