On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed
How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith
In the early 2000s, before the levees broke in New Orleans, it was still possible to be a provincial New Englander and drive in a shiny rental car down Interstate 45 toward Galveston, Texas, without feeling anything except a profound appreciation for the beauty glistening off the West Bay in the sun. Galveston is one of those seaports that can make you stop in your tracks as you consume its beauty, even as Barack Obama’s 2008 election brought long simmering white resentment to a boil beneath flapping DON’T TREAD ON ME banners and Confederate-flag–stamped golf carts in the West End. The smell of the ocean can almost make you forget that Texas, the vast landscape to which Galveston attaches, is a place where you had the best homemade tamales from a pregnant Mexican woman outside of Marfa mere days after you were called the N-word for only the second time in your life. The woman who said it, smiling and blonde, did so in the middle of a fancy restaurant near the University of Texas at Austin campus, as a white couple, friends of your ex-husband, pretended that they didn’t hear. As an elitist Masshole, you find it easy to fall back on tired stereotypes when you think about this Texas that you tried so hard to love, a muggy place peopled by caricatures of tobacco-chewing, bigoted white men and bearded libertarian food truck proprietors.
And then you realize that the thing everyone says about Texas—that it is “the most racist place” in the country—is also what people say about any place in America where the anti-Blackness is less familiar to them than the white supremacy that they are used to. You also remember the older relative who laughed when you said such and such a place was “the most racist”—“that’s like saying one body of water is wetter than another,” they scoffed, “and then fighting over who is right.” And you think how easy it is to be so shallow about an American story that has so much depth.
Galveston might be part of Texas, a state that self-righteous Northern liberals would find easy enough to mock even if Ted Cruz didn’t exist, but it is also the birthplace of Juneteenth, the African American holiday more enduring than the free Black celebrations of West Indian emancipation that preceded it. Once the capital of the Republic of Texas, Galveston was home to nearly 2,000 enslaved people in 1860, although hundreds more newly freed people migrated to the city in the years after the Civil War. Like many remote areas of the Confederacy, Texas was slow to respond to the war’s end—the Army of the Trans-Mississippi did not officially surrender until June 2, and it wasn’t until over two weeks later, on June 19, 1865, that Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger read “General Order No. 3,” which formally enacted the Emancipation Proclamation across the state. As such, Galveston, once home to the largest slave-trading port west of New Orleans, was also the spot where the last group of enslaved people in the United States heard a formal announcement that nearly 250 years of slavery on North American soil was over. Many of them called the day Jubilee, a term used in the Book of Leviticus to describe the moment at which Hebrew slaves and prisoners were freed in the land of Israel. In December 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution finally ended slavery in the United States—with the exception of “punishment for a crime”—and freedpeople in Galveston held the first Juneteenth six months later in 1866 to commemorate what they recognized as the official day of Jubilee.
This is the origin of Juneteenth, which has gained recent popular attention after white Americans responded to last summer’s mass protest movement in the most American way possible—through token gestures of “historical reckoning” rather than actual atonement through, say, restoration of Section 4b of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. A large corporation asked me to participate in one such token gesture, despite the fact that my scholarship is not concerned (narrowly speaking, at least) with Texas or Galveston or the history of African American emancipation celebrations. But I obliged partly because, in the midst of Covid, I worried that members of my family would run out of money, and the gig seemed like an easy way to ensure that didn’t happen. After I delivered what was probably a lackluster Zoom presentation to hundreds of mostly bored middle managers in a quarantine-induced haze of PowerPoint slides and Du Bois quotes, a private question from an audience member confirmed what I already knew—that we as a country are ill-equipped to deal with our so-called moment of racial reckoning because we are so ill-prepared to study our history. “Do you think that learning about Juneteenth will make the blacks stop protesting with antifa in the streets?” the audience member asked, but by that point in the program I was so tired (as I think most Black people were by the second month of quarantine) that I didn’t even see the question until I went to sign off.
Two recent works—one by a seasoned historian and a legend in her field; the other by a decorated poet of contemporary African American life—explore the historical legacy of place as it informs our political present. In How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, poet Clint Smith explores how various public history sites interpret American slavery, because he believes that “our country is in a moment, at an inflection point, in which there is a willingness to more fully grapple with the legacy of slavery and how it shaped the world we live in today.” The Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and Thomas Jefferson scholar Annette Gordon-Reed, however, makes no such claims about the supposed exceptionalism of our current moment. For Gordon-Reed, On Juneteenth is a meditation about the omnipresence of history, beyond the simple origin stories that we want to believe about ourselves.