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Growing Up with Juneteenth

When I was a little girl, in Texas, I thought Juneteenth belonged to us, meaning to the state of Texas generally and to black Texans specifically. In my small town, the story of Gordon Granger, the U.S. Army general who announced, in Galveston, on June 19, 1865, that slavery was over, was told with seriousness and bits of gallows humor. The older people joked that the Emancipation Proclamation had actually been signed two years before, but “the white people” wanted to get a few extra harvest seasons in before they told “the Negroes” about it. My father would say, with a sardonic smile and a short laugh, that it was worse than that: “the slaves have never really been freed.”

The jokes played upon several basic truths. The Emancipation Proclamation had, in fact, been signed more than two years before, but its provisions could only be applied in areas controlled by the U.S. Army. Confederate forces in Texas did not surrender until June 2, 1865. Even after Granger’s announcement, many whites in Texas continued to enslave people who had not heard the news. Those who had heard were often forcibly prevented from acting as if any material change had taken place. Freedom had come in legal terms, but the story was not so clear on the ground as it was on paper. Former enslavers unleashed violence upon the people whom they had claimed as property, and others threatened to do so in order to make people work. Amid joy and hope was great malevolence and power. As my father’s jibe suggested, the legacies of slavery still lingered, putting true freedom out of reach.

I don’t recall white Texans celebrating Juneteenth. Then again, I wouldn’t know; the holiday was part of the summer, and summer took kids in my home town out of the schools and back into our racially separated communities. For our part, Juneteenth meant drinking red soda water and eating barbecued goat, along with other traditional Southern dishes. I loved the red soda water part. I was not so much into eating goat. It was not just that I disliked the taste. Goat was not a usual part of the menu in my area, so, if goat was to be had, one had to be killed and prepared, which I watched a neighbor do on one occasion, to my horror. Whatever leanings I have toward vegetarianism grew out of watching a terrified animal as he was hung upside down, bleating, just before his throat was slit. But that ritual was easily avoided, and we kids, our mouths red, spent most of our time playing games, throwing firecrackers, and lighting sparklers until night fell.

The holiday we celebrated with whites, though seldom together, was the Fourth of July. The difference between the two days was apparent to me even as a kid. Whites had much more reason to see the Declaration of Independence as the fulfillment of something: namely, of their desire to create a nation over which they exercised control. From the country’s earliest days, whites in the South, in particular, saw their freedom as inextricably linked to their power over African-Americans, power that they maintained, through legal and extra-legal means, even after slavery’s end. The long effort to loosen that grip had been the project of black activists and their white allies during the second half of the twentieth century. By the time of my early childhood, those efforts were just beginning to bear fruit.

For blacks, the Declaration carried a promise not yet fulfilled. 

Read entire article at The New Yorker