Happy Juneteenth! If today is the first time you wished someone that – don’t worry. You are not alone. Today is Juneteenth, but more importantly it is Juneteenth 2020. No longer confined to Texas or woke Black communities, it is now a national thing. Very different from Juneteenth 2019. The number of virtual and in person events seems to have risen exponentially since last year. Companies small and large gave their employees the day off. There is a proposal in the Senate to make it a federal holiday. Certainly, this too is the influence of the last few weeks.
The problem with holidays is that they tend to simplify complex historical situations into neatly packaged narratives. Take Thanksgiving, otherwise known as a Day of Mourning (lesson plan if you need one). The history of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag is not simple. They were real people with real interactions that had real consequences. Neatly packaging Thanksgiving into a holiday has diminished those specific people and those specific interactions, but not those consequences, which remain very real for Indigenous communities across our country. Rosa Parks is another example of a simplified story (and holiday! February 4 in California and Missouri; December 1 in Ohio and Oregon; nothing in Alabama). No, she didn’t just wake up one day, go to work, get tired, and decide to start a movement. Her actions were planned and calculated and behind her was an army of people ready to get the boycott party started. Of course, she deserves recognition – it’s just not the whole truth.
I love teaching American History so this year I was delighted to develop a 7th grade course devoted to the topic. Our 7th grade theme is Others and the course title is “Conflict and Cooperation”. I might change that next year to “Conflict, Cooperation, and Co-responsibility” – more on that next week. We had three major units looking at US history from marginalized perspectives: Indigenous experiences in early America; the evolution of freedom from enslavement to the Civil War; and xenophobia during WW2 focusing on the Holocaust and Japanese American incarceration. It was such a powerful class to teach, and I learned so much along the way. When our national conversation on racism, policing, and began to heat up, one of my feelings was relief because I had prepared my students to understand it. We had been doing “the work” all year long.
A surprisingly successful unit was on the Civil War. I thought it would be pretty dry, but it felt like a key topic to include. We ended up skipping over chronologies, strategies, and generals (though I pointed out the wide array of local battlefields their families might visit). We focused instead on the lead up to the war and why legal compromise didn’t work; on Lincoln and questioning his legacy as “The Great Emancipator”; and on whether or not it was a war “for freedom” and if so, freedom for whom of what kind (no question it was “about slavery”). These were not topics I explored deeply as a kid or as an adult so much of the thrill was allowing my students’ ideas and perspectives to shape my own.
I am loving our collective renewed interest in this time period, but it is important we get the details right. Here are some historical “facts” I have seen shared – mostly via social media memes:
- Juneteenth is when enslaved people in Texas finally heard the Emancipation Proclamation had freed them.
- The Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery.
- Juneteenth is when the last enslaved people in America became free.
All of these contain kernels of truth…and kernels of not truth.
Growing up, Juneteenth was a lesser Black holiday than Kwanzaa, but well placed between Memorial Day and July 4, and therefore a good date for a get together. In California, they only happened sometimes. In my kid mind Juneteenth seemed to prove that old timey Texans were really stubborn and that mail traveled really slow.
Later, I disliked suggestions that enslaved people in Texas simply had no idea what was going on for four whole years, until someone showed up to inform them. Talking drums, anyone? There was an entire war going on. A lot of people had been brought from other states by owners fleeing the encroaching armies. It was probably pretty clear what was up. Simple stories take away so much.
For a more accurate version of what Juneteenth might represent, I suggest this article from the always-on-time and good-at-explaining-the-complicated Equal Justice Initiative. It was the beginning of a long road to secure inalienable rights owed to an entire population of people. Andrew Johnson couldn’t officially end the Civil War until Texas stopped holding out on certain qualifications to rejoin the Union, including ratification of the 13th Amendment. And then there was reconstruction and post-reconstruction.
My takeaway as a teacher is to incorporate more nuance into the narrative:
- The Emancipation Proclamation was issued after the Civil War started and after much internal and external debate for Lincoln. He personally favored recolonization in Africa – the moderate liberal position at the time.
- The Emancipation Proclamation only freed some enslaved people living in some parts of the Confederacy – 10 states in all, none of which Lincoln had any control over. It did not make slavery illegal. Excluded were enslaved people living in slave-holding border states that stayed with the Union: Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri and, my current state, Maryland. It did not apply to Tennessee. Additionally, there is a whole section listing Union-occupied Virginia Counties and Louisiana parishes that were exempt. It wasn’t that Black people in Texas didn’t know about the Emancipation Proclamation; it was that white people in Texas didn’t care.
- Sidenote: When did those enslaved in the border states get free? According to this article in The Washington Post, Maryland declared its enslaved people free on Nov. 1, 1864, way after the Emancipation Proclamation and only a few months before Congress approved the 13th Amendment and Lee surrendered at Appomatox. It was a mere seven months before those enslaved in Texas received the big news. There was a vote that “tipped in favor of abolition only after the absentee ballots of soldiers fighting for the North were counted. The final tally was 30,174 in favor of freeing the slaves to 29,799 against.” Oh, Maryland.
- In the records, General Granger (sent down 10 weeks after Lee surrenders) doesn’t read the Emancipation Proclamation, but a “General Order 3”.
- The National Archives only recently found the handwritten order (so much of historical discovery rests on someone being interested enough to go through a box). Granger’s statement reads more like, “The war is over, we won, and all ya’ll are free. For now, just keep working though. Yes, for the people from which you were just freed. Try to get paid. Don’t come down to the base and don’t let me catch you sitting around”. The Freedman’s Bureau was going to come help…eventually.
Slavery was a messy affair lasting over two centuries. Freedom has also been a messy affair lasting over one and a half centuries. If we want to truly understand, honor, and use history in the fight for justice, we must first learn to understand and honor complexity. Otherwise we fail before we even begin.
I am glad the Black community’s microphone is turned way up right now. So many demands are being heard. Even things we forgot to put on the list are getting taken care of (here’s looking at you, Aunt Jemima). But this moment isn’t about just fixing ad campaigns. We want real justice. And real justice comes from understanding real injustice and understanding real injustice comes from understanding real history.
As far as Juneteenth is concerned, I am always down for a reason to rest or celebration BBQ. I am also glad we have a new holiday that forces us to return to the research stacks and reckon with the ghosts of the past. There is sure to be a showdown over Fourth of July (hint: it means nothing to the slave). Let’s use these next two weeks to get comfortable with primary sources, facts, and long stories. Then we can have a real conversation.