Juneteenth, 2020

I think I’d like to pay some attention to Juneteenth this year. I remember hearing about it before, but only from a distance. Since last June, I have been thinking about the increasingly wide divisions in this country and how we seem to cling to them. With that in mind, I would like to think about how Juneteenth could be celebrated by “us” this year.

Juneteenth celebrates the announcement in Texas of the end of slavery everywhere in the U. S. in 1865. Here is what Wikipedia says: [1]

Juneteenth (a portmanteau of June and nineteenth),… is an American holiday celebrated annually on June 19. It commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger read federal orders in Galveston, Texas, that all previously enslaved people in Texas were free.

The end of slavery was a very good thing for the blacks who had been enslaved. It was a very good thing for the Union soldiers who were able to mark this as the ultimate achievement of a long and bloody war. [2] Those two simple statements provide the context for my reflection today, which is: Why is this “a black holiday?”

From my seat on the sidelines, it looks to me like a wonderful opportunity to celebrateJuneteenth 6 America, emphasizing its white and black components. A lot of Union soldiers died to get the Union troops to Texas. Before that, a lot of abolitionists were punished by their communities for urging inconvenient actions regarding slavery. This would be a great time to celebrate them.

For the slaves and their children in many subsequent generations, it doesn’t represent so much an achievement [3] as the celebration of a basic right that had been long denied them. There is every reason to celebrate this new status. Is there any reason to celebrate it together? Is there any reason why the children of the Union soldiers and the northern abolitionists could not get together with the children of the freed slaves and celebrate together? When you first think about it, it seems there is not.

I think you ought to think again.

In the first place, it is not at all in keeping with the cultural and political ambience of our times. This is a time for black Americans to emphasize their common victimhood and for white Americans to bewail their “fragility” and to repent of their “privilege.” Of course, both of those things are true. There is no question that they ought to be granted. There is a reason to wonder why they ought to be allowed to crowd everything else off the stage.

So if we were to begin to consider Juneteenth as the celebration of a new level of cooperation and comity between white [4] and black Americans, the first thing we would have to do is to claim a legitimate place on the stage. It is appropriate, we would have to say, to make a place for blacks and whites to celebrate together the ending of slavery.

juneteenth 1This is no more the time for deploring the evils of slavery than it is the time to dwell on the ugliness of early adolescence when celebrating a young woman’s nineteenth birthday. We all know there were those times. One of them might have been yesterday. The bills for some of them might not yet have been paid. But they are not the matter at hand, the birthday, and they will not keep us from celebrating the end of slavery together,

I spoke casually, above, about “making a place on the stage” and in doing so, I skipped over the fact that we would have to want to make that place on the stage. This celebration of the end of slavery by the white and black participants, is not going to take place if nobody wants it. It is not going to take place if the people who do want it allow themselves to be intimidated by people who think such a celebration is a disgrace.

So we have to proclaim a celebration that violates the cultural and political ambience. And then we have to claim—maybe muscle aside a body or two—a space on the stage to have this celebration.

The case we would make is that it is too good an opportunity to be missed. This a chance for blacks and whites to celebrate an aspect of our common history—an aspect that has something to do with race. How many chances are there to do that!

For people who want it to be a celebration for black Americans only, this is going to feel bad. It is like sharing with a neighbor kid the birthday cake that was supposed to be for the family. Frankly, it is a lot easier to orchestrate a black celebration than a black and white celebration. [5] That could mean that we go to our neutral corners and wait to see what happens. On the other hand, it could mean trying to work out what kind of celebration recognizes and honors all the participants.

Blacks who want the celebration to be all for themselves will accuse the whites of coopting “our celebration.” White liberals who are even more sensitive, sometimes, to slights against a group they think of as a client group, will argue the same from editorial pages. Whites as a racial group don’t have a direct stake in the game, as I see it. There is no Sons of White Liberators from Slavery that I have ever heard of, much less a culture to sustain it. But whites do have a stake in racial comity, just as blacks do and this is a chance to exercise it. If racial comity were a muscle, it would be in danger of atrophying and the blame for that can be very widely shared.

So if there is going to be a national holiday celebrating Juneteenth, I would like it to celebrate blacks and whites making a new start, celebrating what they have done together and planning to work that racial comity muscle until it gets stronger and less likely to tear when it is stressed.

[1] It also notes that Juneteenth is a “portmanteau word” of “June” and “nineteenth.” A portmanteau is a kind of suitcase. Lewis Carroll introduced the work into English, saying that it represented the sort of words he invented for “Jabberwocky,” — “two meanings packed up into one word.”
[2] If you will permit me a small note on punctuation, please note that there is no comma after “soldiers.” If there were, the statement would be demonstrably untrue. On the other hand, there were some Union soldiers for whom it was true and this phrasing includes them. Anti-black sentiment among Union troops was notoriously high, so that is a crucially important comma that is not there.
[3] You will note that “were freed” is a passive verb. It does not represent something the slaves did, but something that was done on their behalf,.
[4] I say “white” for convenience only. I intend “all racial and ethnic groups that are not black.”
[5] It would be easier, too, to celebrate a white event in a white style, but we seem to be in no danger of that.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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