Tuesday was Juneteenth, a day that doesn’t and doesn’t mean something. I grew up with the conflicting assumptions that everyone knew about Juneteenth and that Juneteenth was just for Texans … and for me because my mother is from Texas. I was surprised when I learned there were folks in the north celebrating Juneteenth, but figured they must all be Texas transplants (because sometimes my imagination is just really fussily narrow).
Juneteenth, if you don’t know, is the celebration of the day in 1865 when troops arrived in Galveston and told Texas’ enslaved Africans that they were free. It has morphed into a general celebration of the finally-and-for-real declaration of freedom.
I knew about Juneteenth as a child — I feel, in fact, as if I’ve always known about it, though that cannot be true. We didn’t have a party or picnic or acknowledge it in any way, but I knew about it. Juneteenth was the one solid piece of historical information I had about my great grandfather, Samuel. My beloved Samuel. The one thing I knew about him was that he’d been born in slavery and remembered emancipation. My memory gives me a picture of a white man on horseback speaking the news down to a group of Black people. I don’t think this is something anyone ever told me. Rather, I think it is my writer’s mind making a visual for me to attach my history to.
I saw a lot of posts Tuesday from people who were a little snarky about all the “Happy Juneteenth!” posts, saying we have nothing to celebrate because we aren’t yet free, telling people to sit down and cancel the picnics because nobody’s got a reason for partying. I am willing to grant those people their disquiet. People can feel what they feel and express it how they need to.
But … I also don’t understand those people. Why do they need crush someone else’s joy? Why can’t they allow other people to feel what they feel? Why can’t they acknowledge that we can focus on multiple things at one time, that we can know how much work we still to do and need to see done while celebrating our existence in this world? Why is it so hard to just let people live?
It’s certainly true that Black folks aren’t yet free. In Donald Trump’s America, some of us may be feeling it more acutely, but I imagine that even the least awake Black folks have long been aware of this painful fact — even if they’ve never articulated it in quite that way.
That truth notwithstanding, the importance of Juneteenth remains. I think about Samuel. I think about what it must have felt like in his body and brain to hear the news that his enslavement was ended. It must have blown his mind wide open. Wide open. He was young, sixteen years old on that day. A boy but also a man. Was he frightened by the yawning unknown that was opening in front of him? Did the news of freedom flood excitement through his body, make him drop whatever he was holding and immediately turn to pack his few things and walk off the land to embrace his life as a freedman? Did he have family on that plantation, or was he alone there? Did freedom mean the start of a search to find the family he’d been sold away from or who had been sold away from him? Did the news make him want to laugh, to shout, to punch the air, to cry, to fall to his knees in disbelieving prayer?
I think about all of the people who got the news on that first Juneteenth. Did it also come with the acknowledgment that folks could have been free two and a half years earlier when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed but that, instead, their bondage had to go on for 30 months longer? I saw several folks on FB call out that detail, call out Juneteenth as a celebration of white privilege. Sure, that is some true bullshit right there, keeping folks enslaved for two and a half years after they’d been proclaimed free. But in truth, Lincoln’s Proclamation didn’t do the trick. The Union had to win the war first, and politicians had to get a law on the books. So American slavery didn’t fully and finally end until December of 1865 with the passage of the 13th Amendment.
The importance of Juneteenth remains. I’m thinking about Samuel, my Samuel. Sixteen years old and set loose into his life … with what resources, what aspirations? How did he find his way, how did he determine the shape of his world? Did he know how to read and write? What were his dreams, what possibilities did he see ahead?
I know that five years later he was a cook for a large white family. Did he know how to cook when he walked away from enslavement, or did he learn along the way as he moved toward that job?
Everything about him is obscured in shadow, illuminated only by my imagination. He lived in the brief, cautious hope of Reconstruction, survived the bloody horror of Redemption, and avoided the penal slavery sanctioned by the Black Codes. Did he thrive? Did his life mirror the dreams he had for himself? I can’t know, but I believe Juneteenth had immediate, powerful, tangible value for him. And it is most assuredly neither my place nor my desire to second guess that. Honoring the day is honoring Samuel and every other man, woman, and child who had to survive enslavement so that I could sit here navel-gazing about Juneteenth and its significance in 2018 Trump-World.
I understand the need to keep our eyes on the as-yet-unachieved prize: freedom, full citizenship, equal opportunity, and reparations in this could-be-great-if-it-ever-got-its-shit-together-and-made-this-happen country we built from the ground up. Yeah, I get that. I also understand and embrace the need to mark milestones, celebrate wins along the way. We’d be a lot farther behind the finish line if we hadn’t ever reached Juneteeth.
If our families, our friends, our neighbors, our elders, want to get a little happy on Juneteenth, we have a couple of options: join them or step back and let them have their moment of joy.
In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.