Juneteenth Should Elevate, Not Obscure, African-American Heroism
Before George Floyd was murdered, I had never heard of this man, Gordon Granger, this white union soldier who announced to enslaved people in Texas that they had been freed. Now, I see his name in every post, video, and news story about Juneteenth. And seeing it disturbs the fierce pride I’ve always felt as the holiday approaches. Making Granger a central figure in Juneteenth obscures the agency of our Black ancestors in bringing about the end of slavery. As the day gains national prominence, I’m afraid it will become another vehicle for glorifying white historical actors, rather than honoring Black people’s history of resistance.
Like many African-Americans, I have known of Juneteenth for decades. I knew it as the celebration of an experience, rather than one specific date: the experience of celebration when enslaved people learned of and rejoiced in a freedom for which they themselves had fought. Juneteenth was an African American Pride Day, a coming together of Black folks around the country to share in our ancestor’s hard-won victory.
“It is still too common,” writes modern historian David Williams in his 2005 book, A People’s History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom, “to hear that ‘Lincoln freed the slaves,’ as if African-Americans themselves did not force the issue.” His book is one of many that documents the agency of African Americans in fighting for our own freedom by running away from plantations, taking menial jobs in the union army, going into battle without guns because the army would not issue them. Yet that history is consistently obscured.
Let’s be clear. No matter how the message of emancipation reached them, our ancestors did not suddenly become free upon learning of the proclamation. There was of course a violent backlash. Intimidation, murder, lynching. This was the birth of reconstruction. And the start of a new black bondage through the prison system. Once again, we would have to free ourselves.
And yet as this historic occasion rises to national prominence, we are in danger of erasing African American people’s agency, casting us once more as passive recipients of our own fate.
Like Abraham Lincoln, who’s checkered policy proposals and personal racism are never more than a footnote to his iconic heroism, this focus on Granger is yet another way to obscure the agency of black Americans who have achieved so much in the most egregious of conditions. Not the least of these achievements is in the ability to find joy in resistance.
In law school, I did an internship in Alaska, which is — pun intended — a very white place. I rounded a corner one summer day to see a field filled with black people celebrating Juneteenth. It was the definition of welcome. An instant belonging to one another, through our shared pride. The stories we traded that day were ones I had always known. There was not a single mention of the union army or a white soldier’s announcement.
Juneteenth reminds us to celebrate each victory of our journey. If the day becomes another holiday about white heroism and black passivity, I fear it will not be a sign of progress, but of business as usual.
Anti-racism Trainer, Restorative Justice Consultant