On Juneteenth, The Unofficial Afterword: A Book Review And Reflection On 1865, 1619 And 2021

On Juneteenth, The Unofficial Afterword: A Book Review And Reflection On 1865, 1619 And 2021

On Juneteenth

People demonstrate at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. on Friday, June 19, 2020, to mark Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take control of the state and ensure all enslaved people be freed, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

As president Joe Biden signed legislation to acknowledge Juneteenth as an official federal holiday, he remarked, “All Americans can feel the power of this day, and learn from our history, and celebrate progress and grapple with the distance we’ve come but the distance we have to travel.”

Vice-President Kamala Harris added that Juneteenth and other national holidays “are days when we as a nation have decided to stop and take stock, and often to acknowledge our history.”

As the video went viral of Congressional members offering a self-congratulatory rendition of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” social media influencers, content creators and activists were challenging the meaning of the occasion.

“We didn’t ask for a holiday, we asked for…” (insert any of the policy demands that reached a feverish pitch over the last year of protest and resistance). Defund the police. Reparations. An anti-lynching bill.

While the sentiment of these posts is clear, they’re not exactly true. Activist Opal Lee, the 94-year-old dubbed the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” was on hand to witness the signing of the bill, and others have advocated for decades that Congress make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

However, that fact doesn’t invalidate folks’ contempt for a symbolic victory in place of material gains for Black people in the U.S. As Biden confirmed, Juneteenth is the first new national holiday since former president Ronald Reagan sanctioned Martin Luther King Day in 1983. In nearly forty years, there has been increased representation in many facets of American life, but equity is lagging. Even Lee admitted to Variety that “We’ve put up with so much,” before emancipation until now, and “the situations aren’t that far different.”

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What does it mean that a nation commemorated Juneteenth as a formal day of observance to help all Americans “feel the power of this day” without an accounting of its historiography? How good is our (national and personal) memory, and what does that matter for our future?

“On Juneteenth” is a book of essays written by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Texas native Annette Gordon-Reed that reveals the origin and legacy of June 19, 1865—the day U.S. Army Major General Gordon Granger announced General Order No. 3 in Galveston, Texas.

“On Juneteenth” untangles memory, myth, and legends and how they shape our understanding of and place in history. It also shares the author’s philosophy of history, at times going meta in a way that breaks the proverbial fourth wall.

Both the language and length of this text are accessible, so my friends who don’t read much will find it enjoyable and rewarding. It’s straightforward and reads like a collection of short stories. It’s brimming with historical facts that give us a truer view of June 19. It is a masterclass in reading ourselves into history.

Gordon-Reed uses Juneteenth to tell the story of Texas and builds a strong case for locating America’s origin story in what would become the Lone Star State. She admits an initial resistance to non-Texans celebrating “Emancipation Day” though deftly presents Juneteenth as the apex of an inflection point that began in Texas centuries before. The author contends that the road to Juneteenth, as much as the day itself, is “an American story, told from this most American place.”

From the Preface onward, the author is using memory as an analytical lens. That may seem to be a dubious approach, but it is done with care and candor—and it works.

For example, she recalls desegregation as a student in Conroe, Texas. Young Annette was not just any student but the first Black student to attend a white school in her town. In this vignette, she shares her father’s original logic for sending her to a white school, “breaking down legally imposed racial barriers to gain better access to resources,” as well as his eventual reasoning of “pragmatism, not idealistic inspiration.”

Her parents believed the Supreme Court would eventually strike down the grossly misnomered “freedom of choice” allowances made by school districts to perpetuate de facto segregation. They were right.

This concession renders memory as dynamic, rather than static. It also bares the way we rationalize and validate our own complex decisions. Throughout the essays, she uses a form of internal dialogue that mirrors fiction. Storytelling in this fashion is not common in serious history books, but it is refreshing. There are also subtle limits to this mode.

History books often impress credibility by being authoritative. While “On Juneteenth” shows the author’s expertise and command of the subject, she opens a door to questions about the Black people in her town who were not afforded the same opportunities.

Surely, not every Black person in Conroe had the same relationship with white people that she and her family had. For instance, upon desegregation, the school board shuffled Black teachers out of the classroom into non-teaching roles, because white folks didn’t want their kids seeing Black women as an authority figure. Her mother was one of the few who remained in the classroom, though administrators reassigned her to a white school.

Young Annette wore nice dresses, rode a long distance for classical piano lessons, and was a self-styled “model student.” This provides a nuanced view of the “racial hierarchy” she describes several times throughout the book. A few Black folks had it better than others. However, it doesn’t elucidate the narrative of the common Black person in her town.

The one Black student that appears in her school-aged years is a Black boy who punched her chest several times while they were waiting on the school bus. Yes, “his attack was outlandish,” but why did he do it? Was this done out of jealousy or cruelty? Why did other Black kids threaten to fight her or beat her up? She speculates  they saw her as the catalyst for a “deep sense of loss.”

Gordon-Reed is impressive when dismantling the myth of a flat Black experience. While she provides insightful anecdotes about historical Black folks, her perspective on the lives of her contemporaries would’ve added another dimension to the book.

The author wonders, “What would it be like for children who were not as prepared for school as I had been by my mother; kids who were not as even-tempered and did not have a fancy wardrobe?” Juxtaposed to her admission that her poor white friends taught her “not all white people are the same,” the abstraction of Black contemporaries leaves me curious, as well.

Importantly, the author does not foreclose on the possibility that there’s more to the story. “History is always being revised, as new information comes to light and when different people see known documents and have their own responses to them, shaped by their individual experiences.”

Chiefly, I ruminated on what work that story is doing for Black people who may no longer be allowed to learn about slavery in school.

Portraying her childhood through schooling is an important device for the reader to understand how Gordon-Reed situates herself in Texas lore, how she came to learn and unlearn Texas mythology, and why her personal reflections satisfy as a unifying theme.

One example lies in Texas’ commitment to legend. Gordon-Reed and her classmates took state history twice—in fourth and seventh grades. As she says, “… Texas, more than any other state in the Union, has always embodied nearly every major aspect of the history of the United States of America,” and this type of formal indoctrination is no different.

The author came to know much of her education surrounding Texas and American history to be myth through local folktales and her classical training as a historian. She reminds us that nearly 100 years before Plymouth Rock or Jamestown, the Spanish had already landed in what we call North America with free and enslaved Africans in tow.

Founded in 1565 by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, St. Augustine, Florida is the oldest city in the U.S.  Africans built the structures and worked the land. Before St. Augustine was chartered, four survivors of a failed Gulf Coast expedition landed in the future Galveston, Texas. Esteban de Dorantes, referred to as “the first great African man in America,” was one of those four.

Gordon-Reed narrates these and other profiles in opposition to what she calls a “nationalist-oriented history” of the United States; Eurocentric, but specifically Anglo. She uses the details of several chronicles to explode founding myths and legends.

Africans came from all over the Motherland to the various settlements in the New World as partners and property of colonizers from several European countries, including France, Spain, Portugal, and England. The Spanish had not only claimed Florida and Texas as Gordon-Reed points out, but also what is now known as South Carolina.

In his book “The Dawning of the Apocalypse”, fellow historian Gerald Horne discusses the “long sixteenth century” that he says began in 1492 and ended with the arrival of British settlers in Virginia in 1607. He provides an in-depth accounting of the enslaved Africans that arrived with the Spanish in the 1520s who revolted for decades, teamed up with indigenous populations, and drove out their captors. He contends that this weakening of the Spanish created an opportunity for the British to lay claims to Virginia.

These facts jumble any valid attempt to compile the grimy and blood-stained U.S. origin story into an orderly narrative. As mass media stokes the flames of bad-faith conservative attacks against teaching Critical Race Theory and The 1619 Project in schools, I wonder if people on either side of the debate want a truer history to be taught more than they want to be right.

It’s not just Gordon-Reed and Horne. Multiple historians have gone on record to correct inaccuracies found in the initial reporting of the 1619 project. The New York Times enlisted one of them, Leslie M. Harris, as a fact-checker. She advised the Times of inaccuracies surrounding the cause of the Revolutionary War and the representation of life for enslaved Africans in colonial times. They ignored her.

Harris stated her concerns in a Politico op-ed. “I was concerned that critics would use the overstated claim to discredit the entire undertaking.” This, among more insidious arguments, is precisely what is happening.

 I don’t think it matters much which Spanish settlement came first as much as it matters that we fight back against a hardened retelling of a “nationalist-oriented history,” whether that is a white nationalist or a multi-cultural nationalist history.

As Gordon-Reed says, “Thinking of these interactions as part of a global system makes it even more clear that the origin story of Africans in North America is much richer and more complicated than the story of twenty Africans arriving in Jamestown in 1619.”

What does it mean that liberals and the broader American left have uncritically adopted and awarded something premised on glaring flaws? What are the implications of white Americans joining with Black Americans to celebrate American beginnings marked by the enslavement of Africans? What of the celebration for freedom while offering little substance for those who were freed?

Granger’s General Order No. 3 was intended to provide order to a chaotic Texas, as Gordon-Reed references:

“The freed are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be able to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

In other words, We grant you freedom and rights, but we do not give you any power. Carry on.

What I believe Gordon-Reed to be doing in “On Juneteenth”, and what I’m interested in, is telling not only the right stories, but whole stories. Accordingly, it’s important to ask, in her words, “What work is this story doing?”

When the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” told Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “The slaves didn’t free themselves,” I wonder if she considered the resisters, self-emancipators, or the 200,000 Black troops that fought for the Union army. Chiefly, I ruminated on what work that story is doing for Black people who may no longer be allowed to learn about slavery in school.

We can read this collection as an American history book while challenging the very idea of a so-called “American” history—one which paints a narrow view of unimpeded progress that we hope will continue. If holidays are to mark historical sites of excavation, this book shows us how deep we must dig. Our society is keen on exceptionalizing people, places, and stories. Some we raise as shining examples. Others we diminish in hopes they’d go away.

Much of our history lives in tales of heroes and villains, usually told in a cohesive narrative that implies a certain destiny. And it’s usually told by people we love. Gordon-Reed admonishes us to “recognize and grapple with the humanity and, thus, the fallibility of people in the past—and the present—must be made. That is the stuff of history, too.”

In their work, historians, as others in the ivory tower, are either subverting or upholding the status quo. On Juneteenth” is a stark reminder that there’s much more to any story and that we should “refrain from idolizing human beings.”

From the outset, my skeptical nature led to curiosity as to how I should receive this volume. Immediately, I began to consider the pros and cons of historians writing history in and/or into memoir. In some ways, this practice would seem to be a moral hazard. In other ways, it seems far more honest.

I’m not sure that knowing one has a specific objective makes it any easier to decipher, but I am certain that this elevates the humanity of the teller and the told. It reminds us to approach things critically, including our own memory and our memories of those we love.

The author notes, “We can’t be of real service to the hopes we have for places—and people, ourselves included—without a clear-eye assessment of their (and our) strengths and weaknesses. That often demands a willingness to be critical, sometimes deeply so. How that is done matters, of course. Striking the right balance can be extremely hard.”

“There is no reason for the people taken from Africa to define themselves strictly by the categories their captors created.” — Annette Gordon-Reed

Gordon-Reed wrote that some African Americans in Galveston already knew what to expect from General Order No. 3, and she suggests Granger choose Galveston because it was an important port for Texas. She says, “Port cities are perfect vehicles for transmission of information to people of all degrees of literacy.”

What should we make of Juneteenth now that it’s a federal holiday? Perhaps Black people learning about Juneteenth mostly through word of mouth was actually the proper course of events. Perhaps cookouts and family reunions were always the proper celebration. Or, perhaps, celebrating Juneteenth as an “American” holiday is indeed appropriate.

“On Juneteenth” is a necessary read for a crucial time. I hope that people engage this text and examine history as thoughtfully as Gordon-Reed has in this book. I hope Black people realize, as the author states, “There is no reason for the people taken from Africa to define themselves strictly by the categories their captors created.”

J. Ezra McCoy is a writer and photographer based in East Point, Georgia. His work examines structures and status quo aiming to find the seams and bare the threads.

Twitter: @joshuaemccoy Instagram: @joshuaemccoy

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/joshuaemccoy/

Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/jezramccoy/

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