Reflection on Juneteenth
Today, a lot of people are discovering for the first time that this anniversary exists. I think I first learned about it in St. Louis in the 1990s, as a White person in my 30s, but it might have been even later.
We could think of America as divided into two groups: people who know about Juneteenth and people who don’t. Because of how history affects us—how it shapes our sense of ourselves and our society—in a way these two groups of Americans live in two different countries.
When you learn about Juneteenth, you find yourself in a country where slave holders hid the fact of emancipation from people they enslaved. Where Confederate generals surrendered in April, and whip-wielding overseers watched people harvest crops in June. Finally told of their freedom, they celebrated. People whose inalienable right to liberty had been stolen generation after generation, denied wealth, education, and even family—they celebrated.
If you don’t know about Juneteenth, you live in a place where slave holders never concealed their illegal government’s defeat. Americans never ignored the end of their right to enslave people, just to get one last crop harvested for free. In your country, you never witnessed the paradox of celebrating an anniversary of freedom, while at the same time struggling to vote, hold a job, or ride public transportation.
Of course we have trouble understanding each other, we who live in different countries while calling them both the United States. And, of course, many more countries reside within our borders, because we each inevitably learn and recall different histories. We dispute each others’ versions of the past. In debating over them, we’re defending our homes.
Cultural institutions can be places that recognize and even mediate these debates. Museums can help to resolve questions of fact and model inclusive interpretation. A society that values freedom of thought cannot impose a state-sanctioned history. But in order for us to make decisions through a democratic process, we need to share some understanding about which country we’re living in.
Today Lonnie G. Bunch III spoke about Juneteenth on the Washington Post’s live video channel. He is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He said,
This is not a story, this is not a moment, for black people. It’s a story and a moment for all Americans. The more Americans understand their past, understand their commitment, understand how we all are shaped by race, that gives us the kind of foundation to effect change.
There’s a beautifully written, comprehensive study of the holiday, including how celebrations evolved over time along with racism and anti-racism. It's a chapter by Elizabeth Hayes Turner, “Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory," in her collection with Gregg Cantrell, Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas (Texas A&M University Press, 2006).