What does Juneteenth mean?

What does Juneteenth mean? June 21, 2021,_Virginia.jpg; Eyre Crowe [Public domain]
Yeah, this is another one of my little blog posts in which I write based on memory rather than pulling up links, but here’s the question:  what is Juneteenth about?

Yes, the date commemorates the arrival of the Union Army in Texas proclaiming the liberation of the slaves, on June 19, 1865, some two months after the surrender of Lee and the end of the Civil War, and some two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

And I’ve been reading a number of takes on the significance of that date, that we should interpret the selection of this date, highlighting the unwillingness of Texas slaveowners to liberate their slaves when Lee surrendered, or when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, as an indicator that Juneteenth is, or should be, about the failures of the United States to dismantle racism, the ongoing discrimination of Jim Crow and redlining long after slavery ended, and the racial disparities that still exist today.  It should be a day of contemplation, a day, in particular, for white people to pledge to Do Better and commit to actively opposing racism and supporting reparations.

But that misses the point.

There was no single date which is the “right” date when “the slaves were freed.”  Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, announcing that slaves were freed in all rebellious states, at a point at which the Union Army had no means of enforcing the order.  It was a part of military strategy.  In reality, slaves were freed in the wake of the Union Army’s occupation; it was necessary for the military to announce the liberation of slaves in Texas because they were not already occupied.  And at the end of the Civil War, there were four states in which slavery remained, because these states had not taken up arms against the United States, and the Emancipation Proclamation specifically addressed only the rebellious states.  Only with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in December were all slaves finally freed.

And, looked at another way, this is a part of a longer history.  At the beginning of our nation’s history, slavery was not limited to south of the Mason-Dixon line; New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, etc., permitted slavery, or, rather, did not ban it.  Abolitionism was a gradual process, as the northern states banned slavery in the early nineteenth century, in some cases with phase-outs of various sorts rather than simply immediate liberation, as young slaves became indentured servants instead.  Do we consider this as evidence that the United States as a whole was immoral and tainted, or do we see and value instead the gradual recognition that slavery was wrong, as a meaningful transformation, especially in light of the fact that slavery was not itself an invention of the United States but has existed for millennia?

And, likewise, the time between the American Revolution and the Civil War was not a stand-still in terms of the federal government and slavery, let alone a matter of the federal government supporting and maintaining the institution of slavery.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Compromise of 1850 (or whenever it was), and, well, again, I’m admittedly not looking this up right now, but the Fugitive Slave Act was not passed because of some unanimous support by Americans, North and South, for slavery.  The Civil War did not come out of nowhere, but was a build-up of tensions.

So, what, then, was the significance of this date?  Communities in Texas had, for generations, maintained a tradition of celebration on this date.  The reason why people now lament the apparent injustice that “Juneteenth isn’t being taught in schools”?  Memories are short.  The date is of no special historical significance, but just one piece of an overall story of The End of Slavery in America, and it was, really, only a few years ago that this celebration became widely known outside those homegrown celebrations.  And there is something very appealing about Juneteenth as a community celebration passed on through generations — but that means that we simply can’t build some hidden meaning to the date of the celebration.

Slavery has existed since the dawn of time, or, rather, since the beginning of civilization, of agriculture, of cities.  It has existed in every continent, in China, Africa, pre-Columbian America.  In some times and places, slave status was passed on from parent to child; in others, manumission was possible and slaves were granted a considerable degree of free movement and economic independence in the meantime (even to the point of a slave owning another slave); in yet others, status of children of slaves was irrelevant as slaves were sent to the mines or galleys until they died.  In some circumstances, the lot of slaves was an improvement over what their ancestors would have faced, as conquering armies in the past might otherwise simply have slaughtered the conquered.  In other times and places, slaves were captured by slave traders in raids for that express purpose — after all, the word “slave” came from Slav, as Slavs taken captive by Vikings for Arab and Byzantine slaveowners were a primary source of slaves in the early Middle Ages.  But, yes, American slavery was distinctive for the development that Africans/individuals of African ancestry became considered “naturally” slaves unless proven otherwise, but does that make it worse or more immoral than slavery in, for example, the Ottoman Empire? (And, yes, this existed up until the early 20th century, and, no, I don’t trust the very rosy account told by Wikipedia authors).

And what about the manner in which American slaves of the South were emancipated?  Yes, one might wish that, as in England, they were liberated sooner (in 1833, there), and by means of a unanimous vote, rather than it requiring a brutal war with all its suffering.  Was this because Americans were uniquely racist?  Or was this due to the particular degree of economic and political power of slaveowners, which itself was due to the climate and historical patterns of settlement of slave states?

So do we look at Juneteenth — as one of many possible dates for the emancipation of American slaves — as a date to mourn the fact that slavery existed, or as a date to celebrate that, however much delayed, slavery finally ended?  My preference is the latter — while retaining Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a day for acknowledging the continuing economic disparities experienced by American descendants of slaves.

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