Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Juneteenth's Fine Print

Major-General Gordon Granger
"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 at their present homes and work for wages.  They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."

General Order No. 3 
Delivered June 19, 1865

We celebrate Juneteenth today. The day when slaves in Texas got the news that they had been emancipated. Although Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was signed in January, 1863 the word got to Texas two years later. 

There are many who disparage the celebration of this day. They think there's something silly, if not demeaning in celebrating having remained in bondage two years longer than necessary. Of course they overlook the fact that no slaves anywhere in the United States were truly free until 1865. 

Nonetheless, this post is not so much about Juneteenth, as much as it is about General Order No. 3, the order read by Major-General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas. In fact, it's not about the entire order but the last sentence. It has been relegated to 'fine print' in the celebration and in some ways bolsters not only the celebration - it broadens those who can participate in it. 

"[Former slaves]are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and they will not be supported in idleness either their or elsewhere."

Imagine that! Newly  freed slaves were not to gather at military posts and were warned against 'idleness'. These were the men, women and children, who had planted and harvested the cotton and sweet potatoes; tended the children and the sick; kept the homes of their masters - they and their descendants for more than 300 years without pay, and they were told not to be lazy!

It is an interesting commentary on whose work was respected in 1865. It is a sad commentary on which workers were respected, and those who are not. 

The people who stood before Granger on that day were people whose families had been torn apart by chattel slavery - and whose morality was questioned; some receiving that news on that day had scars on their backs, shaped like grotesque trees. They were whipped in the service of their masters or, because they loved freedom so much they risked escape - but their industry was questioned; they survived brutality, possibly only rivaled by the brick pits of Old Testament Egypt. Still they were unwanted, told to return to the masters as 'employees - the same masters'who just hours before could have continually brutalized them with impunity. 

Interestingly enough today, there are those who say that workers caught in the maw of a stubbornly bruised economy shouldn't get continued unemployment insurance - it will create 'dependency'; we question the morality of the undereducated and hard to employ without jobs that would enable them to care for their families; still others would deny citizenship to undocumented immigrants who pick our fruits and vegetables, wait our the tables or wash the dishes in restaurants we frequent, care for our children and tend our lawns, or clean our houses. 

We still don't appreciate how we dehumanize the people from whose labor we benefit. We foolishly and heartlessly count them as disposable. They inconveniently take the jobs 'we' want, but for which we don't apply because we consider such work 'beneath us'. 

To celebrate Juneteenth is to not only celebrate the late arriving news of emancipation, it should also be to look forward to the day when we recognize the inherent dignity of all labor, as well as all laborers. 

It's the 'fine print' of Juneteenth that we should all read...

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