Saturday, June 19, 2010

Juneteenth: To Celebrate or Not to Celebrate

"The people 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, become that between employer and hired labor. The freed are advised to remain 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 Order #3 (Read by General Gordon Granger, "19th of June", 1865 Galveston, TX)

Attitudes toward 'Juneteenth' continue to be mixed. There are those who wholeheartedly accept the idea of a day celebration commemorating the announcement of slavery's end as entirely appropriate. Conversely, there are those who believe it to be ridiculous to celebrate the fact that Texas slaves remained so until they received news of their emancipation two years later than the rest of the country. They also take issue with the idea that a celebration in which the roots and rationale for the holiday's very existence are not well remembered, let alone barely mentioned as the height of folly.

Count me among those who believe that not only should the day be celebrated, but maybe African-Americans ought to find ways to lead the rest of the country in the joining us.

Before you dismiss this post altogether, hear me out...

For those who condemn the celebration of the late receipt of this critical news, we have to remember a few important facts. One fact is, that the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order given on January 1, 1863, is an important political and moral document, but didn't have the effect of setting all slaves free immediately. The Proclamation declared free those slaves living in states not under Union control. The Proclamation did not apply to the border states (Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri or Delaware) which had not seceded. Tennessee was exempt as were certain counties in Virginia, the city of New Orleans and 13 parishes in Louisiana.

In all, about 20,000 slaves were free immediately in Union occupied Confederate states (except for Texas and Tennessee.

But it the Emancipation Proclamation did set the legal framework for freeing 4 million slaves as the Union Army advanced inexorably throughout the south, until virtually all were free in July 1865. However, slavery didn't legally come to an end until the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in December 1865.

The point is, Juneteenth is more than a celebration of Texas slaves getting the news of their freedom late. Texas slaves became free as the Union Army defeated the Confederacy.

It is true, that most of us aren't aware of this history. I'm not sure that not knowing all of this is a reason for not celebrating Juneteenth. Most Americans know precious little about the battle for American Independence - it hardly keeps us from celebrating July 4th! What would add value to many of our celebrations would be remembrances of the cost of freedom, the value of freedom AND the responsibilities of freedom.

Today, our country is suffering from an unhealthy and inaccurate revision of our history designed to tamp down the awful dark legacy of the brutality and inhumanity of one man enslaving another and nearly 100 years of seeking to justify that brutality and inhumanity through laws, traditions and customs which perpetuated the inhumanity and brutality. We are in need of a retelling of this history which not only reminds us of where we've been, but tells us of America's great capacity for correcting wrong courses and willingness to struggle to be true to its august ideals.

Which brings me to the reason why African-Americans should lead the country in celebrating this day. The freeing of slaves in our country didn't just liberate black people - it liberated all people. Like the Emancipation Proclamation, this freedom did not take place in its totality immediately. Some blacks had come to love being slaves; some slaveholders had come to love being masters. But in the main, what the Proclamation did was make possible the discovery of what it meant to become just and responsible for all people.

We are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but ultimately we are all free to discover a citizenship free from the hatred, bigotry and victimization which characterized some of our forefathers. The fact is, in Texas, and in every other slave holding state, when slavery came to an end, we were all, black and white, set free. It's up to us to discover the full limits of our freedom.

There's an old refrain in the black church that says, 'I may not be what I ought to be; I may not be what I'm gonna be; but thank God, I ain't what I used to be!' That's the truth of Juneteenth, and that's something we all can celebrate!

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