President Joe Biden’s signing of a bill to make Juneteenth a national holiday recognizing the end of racial slavery underscores the progress and perils of the struggle for racial justice since last year’s George Floyd protests.
For Black Texans, Juneteenth, or Emancipation Day, or Freedom Day, resonates in a deeply personal way. The holiday, which the state of Texas officially acknowledges, recognizes June 19, 1865 as the birth of a new American freedom. That day Union Major General Gordon Granger announced the end of racial slavery in America. Black Texans celebrated their freedom – from Galveston to Houston – by building freedom towns commemorating the almost 200,000 Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War, and organizing for citizenship and dignity.
Indeed, Juneteenth is the answer to Frederick Douglass’ towering 1852 address, “What to the Negro is the Fourth of July?” In Rochester, New York Douglass, an enslaved Black man turned abolitionist, newspaper editor and publisher and outspoken civil rights activist, railed against the hypocrisy of a nation that celebrated freedom in an age of chattel slavery. Douglass challenged his audience to recognize Black humanity by embracing abolition-democracy, which comprised not just the end of slavery but required transforming America into a multiracial democracy for the first time in its history.
Juneteenth offers a generational opportunity for Americans to finally guarantee Black citizenship and dignity. Texas’ role in voter suppression legislation and banning an uncomfortable history of racial oppression that it played a key role in maintaining, makes the Lone Star State at once a potential incubator for racial justice and a repository of maintaining an unjust status quo.
It is worth remembering that the last battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Palmito Ranch outside of Brownsville, was fought in Texas on May 12-13, 1865, a month after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.
Juneteenth, its historical origins and contemporary resurgence, brings us closer to some uncomfortable truths about America. Racial backlash in our nation is not an aberration or paradox; it is at the core of who we are. There has never existed a thriving capitalist economy, democratic culture and national consensus in America that was not based on depriving Black people of citizenship and dignity, both during racial slavery and after.
The good news, which Black people have always understood and whites have been loathe to comprehend, is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can overcome this history by confronting it. America does not have to institutionalize racist voter suppression policies every time Black candidates threated white power. Systems of punishment that imprison Black women and men and separate families and communities can be replaced with investments that produce thriving neighborhoods. Education is a right of citizenship that should produce critical thinkers strong enough to grapple with this history and come out through the other side with a deeper commitment to national service, freedom and justice, and a love for America unrooted in myths of exceptionalism and a shining city on a hill. We are strong enough to be authentically ourselves by facing the shortcomings of the past and present.
Juneteenth 2021 will be celebrated against a bittersweet backdrop of racial progress and backlash. Yet we have been here before and have never been better suited to not only struggle and fight to achieve a different country, but to actually win, and in so doing honor the legacies of the Black Americans who truly represent the Greatest Generation to have ever worked (for free), bled (during slavery and the Civil War and after) and dreamed about freedom on the grandest scale imaginable.