Reflections on Juneteenth

The following article may be found on page 3-4 of this month’s newsletter, The Spire. We encourage you to read more!

Celebrated by African American communities for centuries, Juneteenth originated in Texas in 1866, one year after Union General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston with 1,800 soldiers to announce,
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” Black historians remind us what most history books leave out:  Since the first Africans were sold into bondage in Virginia in 1619, enslaved people had been freeing themselves and each other through rebellion, advocacy, organizing, and flight. But we tend to focus on Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, although it freed enslaved people only in areas controlled by the Confederacy. There were not enough Union troops in Texas to enforce Lincoln’s proclamation, and enslavers in Texas continued to hold a quarter of a million people until confronted by Gen. Granger and military might two months after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

Juneteenth is now recognized in 47 states as a state or ceremonial holiday. After the May 25, 2020, police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Massachusetts recognized Juneteenth Independence Day as a state holiday.

First Parish, too, has added Juneteenth to its list of holidays. Also known as Jubilee Day or Liberation Day, Juneteenth is sometimes referred to as American’s second Independence Day.

As I look ahead to Juneteenth, discussing with other members of First Parish’s Racial Justice Coordinating Committee (RJCC) whether and how it should be marked in our predominantly white community,
I am suddenly struck by the historical fact that a second Independence Day was needed. Jarred from an uncritical but soothing stupor of accepting past events as somehow having been inevitable, I find myself wondering why it wasn’t unthinkable that a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could spend a single moment — let alone 246 years —enslaving human beings.

A passage in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me drives the point home, chastising me for ever thinking of slavery in the abstract: “Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is as active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; . . . who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. . . . But when she dies, the world — which is really the only world she can ever know — ends. For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation.” For those who do not know liberation in their lifetimes, what can it matter that the moral arc of the universe may bend toward justice?

How much do I, a white woman, really understand —in my gut, in my DNA, in my soul — about the meaning of enslavement and the meaning of liberation? How clearly do I see the present-day, ubiquitous manifestations of white supremacy that endure in our institutions? How have I benefited
from — and how do I continue to benefit from —
those inequities?

It’s easy to look with contempt on 19th-century Texans who persisted in enslaving people for two and a half years after Emancipation and for two months and 10 days after Appomattox. It’s harder to acknowledge that I benefit from rigged systems that claim to value life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all while simultaneously placing constraints, limitations, impediments, conditions, and exclusions on all who are not white. What force do I have, and with whom can I join, to bend the moral arc of our nation
toward justice?

The RJCC will mark Juneteenth by gathering in our courtyard to reflect on the meaning of the day and the links between enslavement, Emancipation, and the current conversation about reparations for slavery. Schiffon Wong, Chair of the Reparations Committee of the Mystic Valley chapter of the NAACP, will speak about the mission to keep reparations in the public discourse by sending a copy of From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century to every member of Congress.

Congress has before it H.R. 40, a bill that proposes a commission “to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery.” H.R. 40 is named for General Sherman’s promise that the formerly enslaved would each receive 40 acres of seized Confederate land, a promise President Andrew Johnson rescinded after President Lincoln was assassinated.

The bill demands that we look critically and honestly at ourselves as a nation to explore the legacy of slavery: “its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies.”

Until we formally acknowledge that our current inequities were not, in fact, inevitable, we will fail to see how our choices perpetuate them. Until we tally the wealth amassed by whites on the backs of enslaved Africans and African Americans and own up to our use of racism to hoard that wealth, we will persist in the delusion that America is a meritocracy. Until we ask for forgiveness and take concrete steps toward repairing our wrongs, we may congratulate ourselves for no longer enslaving, but we should not make the unsubstantiated claim that we value liberation.

— Amy Anderson, a member of the
Racial Justice Coordinating Committee.
The views in this piece are hers alone.

See RJCC’s resources on Juneteenth and reparations- click the button below…

 Resources on Juneteenth

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