The day marks the moment in Galveston, Tex., when people in bondage learned that slavery was finished, two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.
African Americans, particularly in Texas, have honored June 19, 1865, shortened to “Juneteenth,” with picnics, parades and pilgrimages to Galveston since enslaved men on the wharfs whooped at the news (and some were beaten for it). The halting story of how the rest of the nation caught up is worth telling.
And so, when the coronavirus pandemic sealed many New Yorkers into their apartments, historian Annette Gordon-Reed turned to the task. Bob Weil, her editor at W.W. Norton, had long encouraged her to write about Texas, where she had grown up.
The result is “On Juneteenth,” a nuanced, concise 148-page reflection in six chapters that twines some of her own family story with her home state, “this most American place,” as she puts it.
She writes that the “Cowboy, the Rancher, the Oilman – all wearing ten-gallon hats or Stetson – dominate as the embodiments of Texas. Of greater importance, as I have said in another context, the image of Texas has a gender and a race: ‘Texas is a White man.’ What that means for everyone who lives in Texas and is not a White man is part of what I hope to explore in the essays of this book.”
Indeed, such a potent reductive stew in the popular imagination makes Texas ripe for misunderstanding. At the taproot of Texas is Stephen F. Austin, who recruited white people to the Mexican province of Coahuila y Tejas, now East Texas, not to wrangle or drill but to clear the land for cotton. And Austin, a Missouri scion of slaveholders, discouraged the new arrivals from doing that work themselves.
Yet, Austin, whose name now graces a state capitol and the site of a hip music festival, is just one strand in a more complex origin story.
“No other state brings together so many disparate and defining characteristics all in one,” Gordon-Reed writes, “a state that shares a border with a foreign nation, a state with a long history of disputes between Europeans and an Indigenous population and between Anglo-Europeans and people of Spanish origin, a state that had existed as an independent nation, that had plantation-based slavery and legalized Jim Crow.”
This slim book is a testament to the reading pleasure to be had in the hands of an accomplished, lucid and to-the-point scholar. “On Juneteenth” is an excellent primer for a traveler wanting their bearings before visiting Texas.
Gordon-Reed’s own family tree is fascinating; her maternal side traces to the 1820s in Texas; her paternal to at least the 1860s. Juneteenth was no abstraction in her household.
“Juneteenth was different,” she writes of the day’s contrast to July 4. “For my great-grandmother, my grandparents and relatives of their generation, this was the celebration of the freedom of people they had actually known. My great-grandmother’s mother had been married three times, outliving all her husbands. Her last one had been enslaved until the end of the Civil War.”
Gordon-Reed played her own role in local history in East Texas, where she was the first Black child enrolled in the white elementary school in Conroe. “I integrated my town’s schools, a la Ruby Bridges, with the chief difference being that I was not escorted to my first day of school by federal marshals.”
The little girl proved an excellent student and recalls kind teachers and making friends. Still, she acknowledges and explores the tensions. Her mother remembers Annette breaking out in hives, “a thing I don’t recall.”
She does remember and relish the hours, seemingly endless at the time, making tamales with her female kinfolk for Juneteenth.
“This ritual was fitting, and so very Texan,” Gordon-Reed writes. “People of African descent, and to be honest, of some European descent, celebrating the end of slavery in Texas with dishes learned in slavery and a dish favored by ancient Mesoamerican Indians that connected Texas to its Mexican past; so much Texas history brought together for this one special day.”
On Monday, President Obama delivered his second Inaugural Address in the cold Washington air, laying out a progressive agenda for the next four years. He spoke clearly on the issues of gay marriage, climate change, and social service programs, while pushing members of Congress to work together to solve some of the biggest issues of our time:
Progress does not compel us to settle century’s long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.
For now, decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.
We must act. We must act knowing that our work will be imperfect (ph). We must act knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.
We perked up when the president spoke of issues of equality and justice, echoing Martin Luther King in his visions for a country where inequality and injustice cease to exist:
What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing. That while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.
While analysts debate the significance of President Obama’s speech and whether his vision will becoming a political reality in the coming years, we are simply proud to be witnessing history. In a piece for MSNBC, 2009 winner Annette Gordon-Reed wrote that regardless of his policy positions, President Obama has already changed the landscape of American politics:
By virtue of being the first black president—and being re-elected—Barack Obama has already been a transformational figure in American politics and history. We are not a “post-racial” society, certainly. But the president has transformed the sense of what is possible in the country.
We live in a world that is dominated by the impact of race, class and diversity, but conversations about those ideas don’t happen nearly as often as they need to. That’s why our mission here at Anisfield-Wolf feels so fulfilling, because the books we select provide those sparks that can ignite meaningful conversations bubbling just below the surface.
Take 2009 winner Annette Gordon-Reed for instance. Her books on Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with Sally Hemmings helped Americans analyze the complexities of race and freedoms during our nation’s infancy. Gordon-Reed recently sat down for an interview with BigThink.com about the impact of race in her life and in our society. Her answers on going to a predominately white school in the still segregated South might surprise you.
Black History Month is but one period out of the year where we focus on the accomplishments and contributions of those of the African Diaspora. We believe that the world is a richer place when we celebrate our rich cultural diversity, as evidenced by our dedication to selecting books that contribute to the dialogue. It’s hard for us to select our favorite books out of the Anisfield-Wolf library, so instead we will choose books that give great insight into the triumphs and challenges of African Americans. Share this list with your colleagues, friends, children and neighbors.
Tell us – which of these books have you already read? Which would you recommend?
2009 Anisfield-Wolf Award winner Annette Gordon-Reed had the distinct privilege of being awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant, which is a $500,000 prize for individuals with an exceptionally high level of creativity in their work. The grant is a no-strings-attached award, designed to let the winners continue to produce high-quality work without financial worry. Here is Annette’s video on how she began work on her book, The Hemmingses of Monticello, and what being a MacArthur Fellow means to her.