JUNETEENTH-A Black Woman’s Perspective
by ALLYSON TABOR
Hallelujah! In 2021 the US officially recognized Juneteenth as a Federal holiday, signed into law by President Joe Biden, with no opposing vote in the Senate and only 14 Republicans, including Rep. Tom McClintock, voting against creating the new Federal holiday named Juneteenth “National Independence Day.”
It commemorates the day in 1865 when the enslaved people in Texas finally learned that “They had been freed.”
My people are from Louisiana and never celebrated Juneteenth, nor had I ever heard of it until a few years ago. It was a Texas holiday, and even though we spent several summers in Dallas in the segregated 1960s, I do not recall Juneteenth celebrations. But I definitely internalized 1865 as an important date in American history, signifying the end of slavery for Black people.
African Americans need a dedicated day to remember the end of the oppression of slavery. Louis B. Gates has explained how the summer day of June 19th won out over January 1, Emancipation Proclamation Day. Gates describes the complex history of the commemoration of emancipation, and the various dates when enslaved people were freed in various states and districts in the U.S. I direct you to his 2013 article published in The Root for an enlightening history of Juneteenth.
So let’s celebrate that day, but let’s be clear about exactly what we are and we are not celebrating.
Let’s review what that day of emancipation in Texas meant, and what didn’t happen: justice.
It is a promising thing that white America recognizes that slavery was a sadistic dehumanizing experience for African Americans and that returning to them the right to control their own bodies was a cause for jubilation for African Americans. Every African American who had an enslaved ancestor, and every white American who has a modicum of empathy can imagine the jubilation upon hearing the news.
But jubilation was short-lived, even on the day of the announcement, and African-Americans have been fighting for equality and equity ever since. In fact, the order that was delivered that day by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger was basically, “You’re free, now get back to work”, as the order read,
“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 becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” —General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865.
Juneteenth celebrates the stunning, paradigm-shifting news that slavery was over, nothing more. Juneteenth did not result in full permanent equality nor did it provide the newly-freed slaves with the means to establish themselves and thrive in the new economy.
Some of the economic ramifications of the abolition of slavery were acknowledged by the federal government in Section 4 of the 14th Amendment which specifies that Confederates would not be compensated monetarily for the loss of their slaves:
“…But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave;”.
But there was no mention in the Constitutional amendment of compensating former slaves for the suffering they had endured. This is important because although it was clear that newly freed people would need assistance in order to take their place in U.S. society, it was not enshrined in the Constitution, but handled by decree or legislation which could be and was revoked, i.e., “40 acres and a mule” Field Order No. 15, January 1865, ordered by Gen. Sherman, the Reconstruction Acts, the Freedman’s Bureau.
The “40 acres” property given to the emancipated slaves was returned to the previous white landowners within six months by President Andrew Johnson.
Reconstruction attempted to provide justice, but was ended in 12 years by white Southerners determined to reinstate dominance over the Black people they had once legally terrorized. Justice was never served because white America never admitted that slavery was a crime and never asked for forgiveness and therefore American society never rid itself of racism and the resultant marginalization of Black people. Germany and Rwanda and even prison programs understand this concept: acknowledge, ask for forgiveness and work towards restorative justice. America, founded on the premise that “all men are created equal,” does not understand.
In order to appreciate the earth-shattering significance of the news of Emancipation, it helps to understand what life in the U.S. looked like for a slave in 1865.
The majority of slaves toiled in rural areas and most under the age of 57 had been born in the U.S., as the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the U.S. had ended in 1808. That 1808 decree affected the economy in several key ways: it created a demand for the production of slaves in the U.S., it created a domestic market for slaves, and as a regional sub-set of that market, the trafficking of slaves from the Upper South to the Lower South increased.
There was no legal way of importing new slaves from Africa after 1808, so the demand for slaves was met by domestic trade and white slaveowners forcing female slaves to reproduce. A female slave of child-bearing age was seen as a “breeder,” a way to produce more slaves, so the enslaved woman was either forced to have children by another slave, or raped by white slave owners or their overseers. This is why all African-Americans who had ancestors enslaved in the U.S. have an average of 24% white DNA traced back to European male ancestors. This is why some African Americans are lighter in skin color than others–each generation of women was raped, her female offspring from that rape were then subjected to rape, and her female children were then raped and impregnated, and so on. The term African American reflects the fact that Black African women were impregnated against their will by white males. No one escaped. Anyone who claims enslaved American ancestors has white as well as sub-Saharan African and possibly Native American ancestry.
The domestic market for slaves that developed after the cessation of imported slaves from Africa also increased the value of a slave and created a lucrative market for selling them. The consequence of this was that slave families were separated as their children were sold off for profit.
The factors of birth in the U.S. and separation from family meant that few had any knowledge of African culture or language or even of their own parents by the mid-19th century. The South had changed in the early 1800s: Louisiana had been purchased and big plantations had been created in the Lower South. This created a regional market demand for slaves to work these plantations and a large population shift of slaves from Upper to Lower South ensued. The likelihood that an enslaved person would be separated from family increased.
Then the Civil War was fought, the South was defeated and everyday life in America changed, briefly. Chattel slavery was abolished, and African Americans’ fundamental concept of themselves as human beings changed. Instead of concentrating on barely surviving and avoiding abuse, the newly freed individual could imagine making a comfortable living, establishing a family, living free from fear, being recognized as a worthy individual and fulfilling their lives by developing spiritually and intellectually. African American men, as free citizens, were suddenly granted the right to vote, which they did with enthusiasm, winning many offices at the State and Federal level.
African American women were not granted the right to vote. That was a power only offered to men, black or white. The best she could hope for was perhaps freedom from rape and torture, freedom from forced reproduction for the enrichment of the white master, freedom from forced separation from her family. Perhaps she hoped for control over her own body, the ability to marry and choose whom she would marry, if she would have children and who would father her children, and the freedom to raise them. She also hoped for an education, the freedom to choose where she would live, with whom she would associate, and what type of work she would do.
Life for Southern whites changed, too. Former slave owners were financially ruined when they lost their means of production: their slaves. They lost power when African Americans, who outnumbered them, began to vote. Cognitive dissonance set in for whites as they could not imagine nor accept a world in which they could not dominate or subjugate Black people. Their goal was not to make amends but to regain control and take revenge on their former victims.
Emancipation Day did not mean that rape, separation from family and discrimination suddenly ceased. There was a brief period during Reconstruction when life improved somewhat–black men voted and held office, economic conditions improved in some communities, schools for the newly freed were founded, African Americans were allowed to marry, terror against black people diminished.
But Reconstruction unraveled and then ended when the federal troops withdrew in 1877. Whites reasserted their position of dominance once more, and the Black population was reduced to near-identical slavery conditions by lynchings, rapes, destruction of property and impoverishment through sharecropping. Black men and women were lynched by whites who were not brought to justice well into the 20th century.
Federal laws that promulgated equality were ignored. After Emancipation, control over who one married was eroded as an increasing number of anti-miscegenation laws were passed outlawing consensual sex between a Black and white individual, not overturned until Loving vs. Virginia in 1967. Ironically, while the forced production of mixed-race children was desirable before Emancipation (because they were a commodity), during the colonial period and after Emancipation consensual reproduction of children by whites and those of African ancestry was seen as undesirable–a dilution of white blood. Control over one’s children was not assured, an example of which is the 20th century Child Protective Services CPS system that removes more black than white children from their families.
Disenfranchisement of Black voters ensued, with the most glaring example being the only coup in American history in Wilmington, NC 1898 where white supremacists killed Black people, burned their businesses and overthrew the racially integrated municipal government. The right to vote, eviscerated after Reconstruction, championed under the Civil Rights Act of 1965, was once again eroded when, in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the act which required the federal government to review any changes of voting rules in nine states with a history of voter discrimination. Once again the federal government abandoned the South, and white racists took advantage of the power vacuum to dilute the Black vote by gerrymandering districts.
To truly commemorate emancipation from slavery Black people can celebrate the elation our ancestors felt that day, but because black people have not been made equal, we should keep our eyes on the prize, as Martin Luther King said.
I suggest incorporating ritual remembrance into the celebration so that we do not forget what our ancestors suffered and what still needs to change. The focus of the day should remain sharp, and not devolve into a day for picnics and mattress sales, devoid of meaning.
Jews celebrate Passover for this reason–it unites them as a cultural group with a shared cultural memory and a resolve to never let the crimes against their people happen again.
Unfortunately, Black Americans are losing this ancestral memory, even though, or because, it was relatively recent. I am only three generations removed from slavery. My paternal great-grandparents were enslaved. I was raised by my grandparents, who were the children of former slaves, and I know who these people were by name. I touched the hand of someone who touched the hand of a slave. Yet very few stories of the horrors of slavery were passed down to their children, or to me. I knew my ancestors had been enslaved, knew that my great grandfather volunteered as a bugle boy with the Union Army, but never heard any stories about daily life as an enslaved person.
This is not a surprising phenomenon. It is defined as post-traumatic stress syndrome now–any discussion of the trauma can trigger the person to relive the horrors of the event or time.
They were determined to create a decent life for themselves and their children, and resurrecting the memories of slavery was too painful. They focused instead on the accomplishments of the race: education, economic prosperity, family and social cohesion.
Because the stories of slavery were not passed on, succeeding generations did not learn and internalize what it had been like. If we were fortunate to have parents who were racially aware, we learned key historic events “Lincoln freed the slaves, 1865,” concepts like “They can take everything from you, but they can’t take your education,” and contemporary events involving African Americans. We certainly weren’t taught anything in California schools in the 1960s about slavery, Emancipation, Reconstruction, or the contributions of African Americans. Our parents taught us the little that we know, and they did not recite the horrific details of slavery.
On June 19th African Americans commemorate the emancipation of our ancestors, reciting what they experienced so we can unite over our shared past and the impact it has on our lives.
On June 20th, we call on white idealists and persons in power to finally achieve the goals of the Reconstruction Acts by implementing concrete measures that will eliminate racism from the American psyche and grant us all–no matter our color–equality, and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Do I really think this will happen? No, but to do nothing is to give up on my ancestors’ dreams.