What’s Wrong with Juneteenth?

Last Saturday was the first observance of Juneteenth as a national holiday commemorating news of emancipation to African Americans in Galveston, Texas June 1865. While many Americans this year learned of the new, federalized, holiday through corporations quick to include it in their public relations campaigns, yet other Americans including blacks expanded their understanding of Juneteenth via social media like the useful tool shared by historian Shennette Garrett-Scott on Facebook.

On Instagram too, users posted images of celebrations taking place around music and food. At some festivities, there were no doubt speeches about the absurdity of African Americans in Galveston not receiving word of official freedom till two months after the Civil War had ended. At a conceptual level, Juneteenth includes righteous indignation at the lateness of the important news. The appropriate umbrage is directly in response to the failure of dissemination of the information and more directly in response to the gross inhumanity of the economic and social institution that gave rise to the regional conflict.

Other celebrations last Saturday may not have included formal adddresses, some communities preferring to make a simply festive day of it. These communities chose, perhaps intentionally, to express jubilance. Although I initially found myself concerned with the former way of observing the significant history, before long I came to better understand the choice. Recollection of an oft-viewed engraving of African Americans at DeVall’s Bluff, Arkansas cheering the mustering out (official end of service) of United States Colored Troops reminded me of the importance of soulful expression, which doesn’t always need to be tempered by discourses.

Mustering Out of United States Colored Troops, January 1866, DeVall’s Bluff, Ark. Courtesy Wikipedia.com

My reconciliation did not, however, keep me from calling up my brother midday after attempts at having a critical conversation about Juneteenth had eluded me. My brother doesn’t announce himself as an intellectual, but he is one of the most critical and humorous persons I know. I greeted him with obvious sarcasm — ”Happy Juneteenth!”

“Hold on…” he responded. “Wait…Juneteenth? I didn’t learn about this in school. I never had any African American history. What is this Juneteenth, and….hold on…How am I supposed to celebrate something I didn’t know about before today?”

He was on cue. Not a public comedian, he nevertheless knew how to exaggerate and time the delivery of his response, and it made me laugh with him. And while I knew that he was using humor to question this peculiar formalization of the commemoration of emancipation, also at issue was what felt to both of us like a bandwagon. No matter the situation, most members of our family have an aversion to towing any party line. We are some natural born contrarians. I felt therefore that both my brother’s and my own reluctance to give Juneteenth a full embrace was appropriate. Unfortunately, the person with whom I share a house and life did not appreciate my brother’s and my sanguine camaraderie.

My brother was on speaker as I talked to him from my kitchen. My husband, watching television in an adjoining room, eavesdropped on the conversation. After he had had all he wanted to take, he kindly asked me to continue our chatter elsewhere. If my spouse were Joan Didion’s husband, he would write “fun suckers,” in the dust on the furniture.

I could tell, however, that my spouse’s attempt to remove my brother’s and my voices from within his hearing was a response to moral pain. Every point made by us felt to him like a stab, soul deep. Sadistic critique had not been my intention, or, on second thought, maybe it was. After my phone call ended, I put away my thoughts for the rest of the weekend. After all, Juneteenth had to share its weekend with Father’s Day, and I didn’t want to ruin that holiday for the father of our three children.

However, bright and early Monday morning, the day the government gave for observance, I returned to the topic of Juneteenth. As I sat in my study thinking and writing, at first journaling to clear my head, slowly, I realized that my husband had not left for work. Clinging to the bed covers, I saw that he had chosen to use the day off to sleep in. The luxury of rest seemed to me not only apropos but a perfect counter to a modern order of work.

As I wrote, I found myself trying to understand my husband’s impatience with me Saturday. Even while he himself had not seemed especially interested in Juneteenth leading up to the start of festivities, he had definitely taken issue with my skepticism. I wanted to know what was up with his annoyance though I already had my suspicions. Going over the situation that had given rise to his displeasure, I figured that my conversation with my brother had stoked in my husband something that had challenged his own politics and identity. For one thing, there I was seeking companionship and a meeting of minds not with him but with my brother. And yet, I don’t think the root of irritation was jealousy but, rather, black politics — deeply seated — and identity.

As happens with journaling, I ended up somewhere I had not expected. I found myself writing about “Good Times,” an actual Seventies show, that made black people — not that long ago Colored and Negro — feel that we had presence in the world, that we had our own cultural products, our own time slot, and our own representatives of the good life. If James and Florida Evans and their children — hemmed up as they were in their Chicago housing project — weren’t living the American Dream, blacks observed through Ebony and Jet magazines that John Amos and Esther Rolle were.

As religiously as we watched “Good Times’’ and other sitcoms of same or similar vein — “Sanford and Son” and “The Jeffersons” — some of us were even more committed to keeping John Johnson’s magazine empire in business. It all went together — black celebrity, black-owned media, black consumer practices, and our faith that the heavens would always smile upon at least a few of us. In the ‘70s, that was enough.

After “Good Times” was in reruns and Ebony and Jet had given way to BET, a a brand new set of stars — Oprah, Michael Jordan, and Tyler Perry — would come to symbolize something similar yet different from the ’70s black celebrity. The monumental successes of these latter day wizards would fall just shy of convincing a people that the playing field was equal. They challenged us to think so. Jordan’s “Just do it” ad sponsored by Nike was offered in the same context that expanded and heightened the basketball industry, making the dream of becoming a professional athlete seem within reach for a greater number of youth. In the same era, a black woman’s monopoly of the talk show genre and her cross-over appeal predated The Obama’s Administration as a symbol of a post-racial America. While Tyler Perry’s shtick — an interesting mixture of historic exaggerations of blackness and an updating of them, with a certain universal black identity, politics, and humor — quickly became iconic. These late twentieth-century ascensions no longer implied that a few blacks could make it but, even with conservative pushback, tempted audiences to believe that African Americans were truly on the rise.

This runaway idea of black success would have its check in the nihilism of rap, the very real problems of drugs and death within American cities, the prison industrial complex, and a very long history of over-policing of blacks, on which mobile phone cameras shed new light. In spite of the balance such stark realties have given, Americans still contend with the allure of capital and its tricky productions including cultural ones. What can history be — how much depth can it have — in the hands of this kind of machine?

Last year, when Juneteenth was still brewing, I thought to share a gruesome Civil War era story I happened upon while reading through Freedmen’s Bureau records. On Tuesday, Aug. 4, 1863, blacks from a refugee (contraband) camp at New Madrid, Mo. allegedly murdered six members of the Beckham family of Compromise, Tennessee. Victims included three males and three females. Three were also children.

As a Civil War and emancipation researcher I come across many interesting stories that complicate history, but none has given me as much pause as what I have titled a Murder of Compromise. The alleged perpetrators of the violent acts of murder had traveled from the Island №10 contraband camp, back, it would seem to the place where they had been enslaved. Despite the white family’s pleas, despite the children having entered the waters of the Mississippi to escape slaughter, the killers that day gave no quarter. There would be no compromise.

This is the kind of story that cries out for explanation, one that is not so easily turned into something else, not easily captured in film, nor even literature. It is the kind of story that should, for historians among others, complement our uses of Juneteenth, and it should complicate our attempts at digesting the inhumanity of slavery.

Nothing in history is ever simple, yet this fact is every minute in America and in the world forsaken in the interests of feeling good, of “progress,” of getting along, of show business, of politics, and, ultimately, of growth of capital. Truth, it seems, always has the last with which to compete.

A few Facebook posts I read Saturday, June 19 poked fun at some corporate ads — like that for the Juneteenth personalized name quilt— seeing in them less a true appreciation for a far-too-long forestalled African American freedom than acceptance that the business of business today, as it always has been, is presentation.

So what then of African American pain, of my husband’s, and — all kidding aside — of my own? Years ago, decades actually, when I was in graduate school, a Latinx classmate said to me in a whisper as we were discussing a text I cannot recall on pragmatism — “They don’t feel our pain.” I think I’m realizing that the Juneteenth celebrations as they are taking place within some black families are about feeling more deeply, as best we can, in a world that teaches everyone to do otherwise. Just maybe jubilation is the most appropriate form of remembrance. Maybe my fellows, whether they know it or not, are even channeling.

There may be, then, no right or wrong ways for African Americans to observe Juneteenth. I’ll take that lesson from my husband and another from my brother, for the federalization of the acknowledgement of emancipation is not only too little too late, but a clear indication that 150 years after the news of freedom reached Galveston, blacks — like other Americans — are still bereft of information.

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