Juneteenth

It’s staggering to think about all the things we never learned in school about the founding of our nation. We celebrated Columbus Day with the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. We talked about how Columbus discovered America as if it were vacant land, waiting just for him. I thought it was the Mayflower and making friends on Thanksgiving. I really thought it was cowboys and Indians and war whoops. And while there was this thing called slavery for a few years in the South, we won the Civil War, and then the slaves were emancipated. And then everything just progressed from there. And sure, there was segregation and Jim Crow down in Mississippi and so forth, but not in my little city up North. 

The aphorism, “History is written by the victors,” has never been more starkly defined. We are so woefully unaware of anything that falls outside of the sanitized privileged retelling of our origins. For instance, no one told me that Columbus sailed home from his second voyage to the New World with over a thousand captives bound for slave auctions in Cádiz (many died en route, their bodies tossed overboard). No one mentioned that Columbus was the first transatlantic human trafficker. Like Rebecca West once said, “It is sometimes very hard to tell the difference between history and the smell of a skunk.”

Slavery in America was “a massive institution that shaped and defined the political economy of colonial America, and later, the United States” … an “institution (that) left a profound legacy for the descendants of enslaved Africans, who even after emancipation were subject to almost a century of violence, disenfranchisement, and pervasive oppression, with social, economic, and cultural effects that persist to the present.”

I didn’t learn that in school. I didn’t see the direct link between slavery and the bloody civil rights campaign of Martin Luther King. That was not in the 6th-grade curriculum. It didn’t occur to me – and how could it, given the information I had? – that the violence against Black people I saw on tv from Selma, police attacking nonviolent demonstrators with truncheons and dogs and fire hoses was a direct extension of slavery and the deep desire of some white people to keep Black folk in their place?

The long legacy of American slavery casts an appalling shadow on the character and substance of our country. The continuing violence against people of color underscores the deep roots of racism and the pathetic ongoing attempts to justify it or contextualize it.

Juneteenth celebrates a belated liberation. Enslaved people in the Confederacy who didn’t manage to escape across Union lines or find themselves in occupied territory were not all made free by Lincoln’s proclamation. They had to wait until the end of the Civil War to take their first free breaths. In isolated Texas, word of the official end of the fighting, the surrenders of Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston, and the capture of President Jefferson Davis through May 1865 arrived late. Freedom finally came to Texas on June 19 of that year, after a proclamation by General Gordon Granger in Galveston solidified the emancipation of the quarter-million enslaved people in the state.

So what if we, as a nation, decided to adopt Juneteenth as a national holiday? What if we used that day for reflection and commitment to change? What if Juneteenth became a new line in the sand, a marker for when we finally started to right wrongs and engage in social action and legislative change and connection to the world as it is and as we wish – as we demand – it become?

Various civic leaders across the US have begun talking about adding Juneteenth to the canon of US holidays. I listened to mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, give a rather lukewarm nod to the possibility of such a thing happening in Massachusetts. He was concerned that it may be difficult. “it would add to costs in the city, because it’s overtime, and we’d have to work it into all the contracts… I mean, I support it. If the Legislature does it, I support it wholeheartedly. But we’d have to look at how does it happen — does it fall on a date, does it fall on a weekend? You know, the date might be in the middle of the week. . . So there’s a lot of conversation.”

Yes. There is a lot of conversation, as there should be. And I hope the response to those conversations will be action. There is so much to learn and so much to do. We will engage on both levels as we move forward in earnest. We cannot go forth a la Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. We must be deliberate. We must study together to be truly able to write the new American story. This is it. Time’s up.

Juneteenth is the purest distillation of the evils that still plague America and a celebration of the good people who fought those evils. It is tragedy and comedy, hope and setbacks. As a national holiday, Juneteenth, immersed as it is in both the canon of old history and the ongoing struggle for civil rights, would be the only one that celebrates liberty in America as it actually is: delayed.

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