Juneteenth

It’s been a long time since I posted on this blog. I just didn’t have the heart, through the Trump administration and the Covid-19 pandemic, to keep going back through the negative emotions that suffused so many of those days just to write about them. Living them was hard enough.

I can’t say wholeheartedly that America is in a much better place now with Biden in office since Trump is still exercising incredible power over the Fed from the political periphery, and the Republicans that are in office are doing everything they can to keep his hateful populist ethic alive and block all Democratic efforts to keep Covid-19 under control, shore up voting rights, restore women’s reproductive rights, rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, and hold accountable the domestic terrorists that stormed the Capitol on January 6. However, I am a bit less harried than I was when Trump was actually President. All of my loved ones, including my 13-year-old, have been vaccinated against Covid-19; I was blessed to have lost no one close to me to the pandemic; I have my job; my husband has his job; I am staring 45 in the face with decent health and relative happiness. I won’t complain.

What I will do…what I have been doing…is writing again. And it feels good. Like coming home to my own, true mind.

It started with a few poems, a little dabbling in fiction, and then last week I was asked to say a few words about the history and meaning of Juneteenth at a local festival this past Saturday. I worked really hard at getting those words right because as one of my good friends announced on the mic at said festival Juneteenth is a high holy holiday for Black folks in America. It symbolizes the end of 247 years of slavery (though the institution did not truly end until the signing of a series of treaties by the “Civilized Tribes” of indigenous peoples in 1866) and the truer beginning of a new era for Blacks in this country as free and politically and economically viable. That’s huge, even if we haven’t yet gotten the equity and justice that should’ve been built into the deal. I did my research, drafted, revised, edited, rewrote, and came up with something that sounded good and felt right. I wanted to do justice to the past and say something meaningful about the present and future. I like to think I did that.

Anyway, I felt incredibly blessed, standing, the first federal Juneteenth, speaking about my people on a rain-soaked stage in the middle of a crowded street, with my afro and toes out, the sun beaming on my hair and skin, a microphone gripped in my hand, and a couple dozen eyes on me. I felt like the answer to a prayer some foremother of mine might have had to speak her heart freely and not have her chest caved in for it. I felt proud. I felt happy. I felt grateful.

In the spirit of Juneteenth, that unnamed foremother, all my Black folks living here and now, my daughter, and the high, holy gift of freedom, I am sharing the words I spoke last Saturday here with anyone that gives a damn and has a couple of minutes to read them.

I hope all that celebrated had a Happy Juneteenth and did something to make the day truly meaningful because it isn’t just another occasion to barbecue. It’s a day to contemplate freedom and commit yet again to gaining it as Black folks in totality.

January 1, 1863

A Transcription

By the President of the United States of America:

A Proclamation.

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit: That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons…

These are the exact words in the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the enslaved. Mind you, not all of the enslaved; those contained in Arkansas, parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, parts of Virginia, and Texas. The states and parts of states that were Confederate – that were in open rebellion against the Union.

Until a couple of years ago, when I did research into Juneteenth and its origins, I didn’t know Texas was a slave state or part of the Confederacy. But it was and it was. It went from being the only part of Mexico where slavery was still allowed in the 1830s to being the largest state with one of the fastest growing populations of enslaved Black people in the US in the 1840s. 

In 1845, there were 30,000 enslaved Black people in Texas, but by 1860, there were 183,566. The enslaved Black people in Texas worked on cotton, corn, and sugar plantations; they were cooks, maids, mechanics, blacksmiths, and carpenters. And yes, they were cowboys. In fact, one in four cowboys in the US during the late 1800s was Black.

But that isn’t to say that these people’s lives were any easier or freer than those enslaved in Mississippi or Georgia or Alabama or Arkansas. Slavery in Texas was brutal just like everywhere else. Enslaved men, women, and children were considered property under the law, able to be bought, sold, mortgaged, and hired out. They could not own land or houses. They could not get married and had no custody rights over their children. Slave owners had what was called “broad powers of discipline,” and though the enslaved had a right to trial by jury for serious criminal charges, they could not testify against white people in court. Whipping was legal. Tiny cabins with dirt floors and little furniture were common. Food was scarce, so malnutrition was rampant. Clothing was cheap and coarse. Shoes were stiff and ill-fitting. Medical treatment was inadequate and often harmful. Work was mercilessly physical and demanded in 12- to 15-hour shifts. Having babies was encouraged, but family ties were not honored and frequently disrupted. Thousands escaped to Mexico. Most remained in bondage, doing what they could to survive and dreaming of freedom that could be achieved without death.

The Emancipation Proclamation was supposed to grant that freedom. January 1, 1863, is where our story should arrive at the happy ending of freedom for all enslaved Black people in the US, but it doesn’t. The Emancipation Proclamation has a mighty effect, but it is not magic. Yes, it frees three million enslaved Black people “as a fit and necessary war measure” (those are Abraham Lincoln’s words, not mine), but hundreds of thousands of Black people remain illegally imprisoned, having no idea about emancipation. Down in Texas, white officials and landowners ignore Lincoln and conspire to keep slave codes in place and active.

This is how Texas becomes the birthplace of Jubilee Day or what we now call Juneteenth.

It is June 19, 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrenders in Virginia. The Union has won, the South is in ruins, but life in Texas is going on as if the Civil War never happened. Federal troops finally arrive in Galveston, under the command of General Gordon Granger, to take control of the last Confederate frontier. General Granger issues General Orders No. 3, which reads, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them…” 

At this time, the 250,000 enslaved Blacks in Texas are no longer officially free; they are actually free. Though it takes months for all to become unchained, as they do learn about their freedom and embrace it, they celebrate. They hold barbecues, ball games, festivals, picnics, parades, pageants, and political rallies throughout the state, and this becomes a tradition, every year on June 19. Black people in Texas celebrate Juneteenth throughout the Reconstruction and into the 1900s. During the Civil Rights Movement, the holiday spreads outside of Texas. Big celebrations start happening every year in Wisconsin and Milwaukee. Ironically, Texas, the last state to free the enslaved, is the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday in 1979.

As time passes, the popularity of Juneteenth continues to grow. It becomes a widely known part of Black history and culture. And now, as of Thursday, June 17, 2021, it is a federal holiday. Today, June 19, 2021, is the first time Juneteenth will be marked by observance in all 50 states.

I, just like any other proud Black American, love to see when something of ours is recognized for its importance. I am happy that Juneteenth has been declared a federal holiday. But it is bittersweet. Juneteenth is a celebration of my people’s freedom, but it is also a remembrance of the way that freedom was denied from us, even after it had been promised. It is both a reminder of the incredible way that my people survived the hell of 247 years of slavery and the unbelievable way they were made to suffer in the hell of slavery for 247 years.

I can’t help it. When I think about the meaning of Juneteenth, I am grateful, and I am disappointed. I think about what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, 100 years after emancipation: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men…would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”

America has a habit of writing these massive bad checks to Black people. The Declaration of Independence was a bad check. The Constitution was a bad check. The Emancipation Proclamation was a bad check. Even the 13th Amendment was a bad check. It was supposed to grant my people freedom and equality, but it didn’t.  Even after slavery ended, freedom and equality for Black people remained rare, conditional, and costly. Even now, freedom and equality for Black people remain rare, conditional, and costly.

So as much as we deserve to have Juneteenth be a federal holiday, as much as Black freedom deserves to be celebrated, I can’t help feeling like Joe Biden has just written us another bad check. I love a day off of work just as much as anybody, but a day off of work for Black people to hypothetically “rest up” from all the hate and harm is grossly insufficient, just like Dr. King said. It is not enough to pay what America owes us.

A day off isn’t going to make policing any safer for us. It isn’t going to make the court system any fairer for us. It isn’t going to stop Republicans from trying to rob us of our freedom to vote. It isn’t going to grant us reparations for what our ancestors suffered during 247 years of antebellum slavery, compensate the loss of 6,400 black lives to lynching between 1865 and 2020, or free the multitude of Black people that are currently incarcerated due to racially unjust laws.

Still. I would rather have my day than not have it. I will take my day. I will insist on it. And I will use it. Every year, every Juneteenth, I will do something to celebrate my freedom, honor my ancestors, invest in my community, fight against anti-Black racism, and clear the path to a freer future for my future descendants..

Dr. King said in “I Have a Dream”: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation…We have come to cash this check – a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” 

Every year, every Juneteenth, I say we all go ahead and take the day off but we also demand to be paid. Every year, every Juneteenth, let’s issue another invoice to America until it finally pays us what we are due. Let’s celebrate in a way that reminds everyone that we are still here, still thriving, still mattering, still making America great, and still demanding justice.

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