The Meaning of Juneteenth is Beyond Celebration
For Black Americans, freedom did not come easily. To celebrate the rights they deserved after their hundreds of years of struggle, it was designated that June 19 , or Juneteenth — the day Union generals proclaimed the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas during the Civil War —as the day African Americans celebrate their freedom and remember their suffering.
This June 19th was June 19th, 1865. By this time the Emancipation Proclamation had been enacted by Lincoln for more than two years and the Civil War had been over for forty days, and the Confederate Army Commander-in-Chief, Gen. Robert E. Lee had formally surrendered to Union forces. However, due to the inconvenience of traffic, it was not until Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston, Texas, was the news widely known to those enslaved Black men and women in the South who had suffered through a long time.
For more than a century, this holiday has been celebrated and remembered by generations of black people. According to a website that tracks these celebrations, the day is usually celebrated through prayers and family gatherings Sometimes, formerly enslaved men and women and their descendants make an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston.
In some cities with predominantly black populations, such as Atlanta and Washington, D.C., huge parades are held almost every year. With the objective challenges posed by the coronavirus, many of these events have been held online instead. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library held a big online one about black culture. Forum meeting and launched a “Black Liberation Booklist”; the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut held a virtual exhibition and traditional African live music and dance performance on their website.
In recent years, Juneteenth has gained broader awareness and recognition, with an increasing number of institutions and local governments calling for the celebration. Juneteenth has become an official holiday in 47 different states and Washington, DC. On Capitol Hill, Senators have begun debating a bill that would officially mark the day as a national holiday. While the National Football League gave everyone a day off, some tech companies, including Twitter and Nike, proclaimed Juneteenth a corporate holiday.
However, for this ethnic minority that have endured centuries of exploitation, celebrations and vacations are not all about the holiday. Gwen Ragsdale, director of the Museum of Slavery in Philadelphia, told NPR: “African Americans were on the front lines of every war, from the Spanish-American War, throughout the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, both world wars, Vietnam. We have paid our dues with our blood and our toil, so America owes African Americans much more than they are willing to acknowledge.”
This Juneteenth is more unusual in its essence: As protest became a theme that was remembered and carried out because of a series of incidents of racial violence and injustices, more and more people began to peel back the layers of the past that had been gradually blurred with the passage of time, and began to understand what kind of struggle it needs to take to achieve true racial equality.
The story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “nonviolent resistance” is recounted repeatedly for morbid reasons in the education of history and collective memory; it seems that only such “non-violent protest” will not disturb the existing vested interests and make the privileged feel guilty. In such a mindset, they mistakenly assumed that Dr. King’s method of protest must have been popular at the height of the civil rights movement , so today’s protesters should emulate him. One columnist once wrote:
“In one of his first prominent speeches, during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of “the glory of America, with all its faults.” At the March on Washington, King described not just a dream but “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” Before finishing, he recited the first seven lines of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” ending with “Let freedom ring!”A year-and-a-half later, marchers from Selma to Montgomery carried American flags. Segregationist hecklers along the route held up Confederate flags. Within six months, Lyndon Johnson had signed the Voting Rights Act.”
According to opinion polls at the time, only 22 percent of Americans approved of the Dr. King’s marches and only 28 percent approved of the sit-in. An overwhelming majority of Americans — 60 percent — felt “dissatisfied” with the March on Washington. In 1966, 63 percent of the U.S. People had a negative view of Dr. King. The public’s animosity toward King also extended to the government he wanted to embrace — he was wiretapped and harassed by the FBI until he was assassinated by a white supremacist in Memphis in 1968.
Martin Luther King Jr. understood better than anyone else that freedom depended on sacrifice, and in April 1963, he led thousands of Blacks to stage a sit-in in Birmingham, Alabama, to express their displeasure with the harsh racial segregation there. The media at the time almost unanimously agreed that this was done too quickly with no negotiations with the city government and was used to deliberately anger the then entirely white Birmingham city government. A few days later, King and several of the clergymen with whom he was staging the sit-in were arrested and thrown into the Birmingham City Jail.
While in prison, he wrote the world-famous Letters from Birmingham City Jail, which expressed his frustration with the moderate critics and the public who did not want him to use sit-ins to express protest. He wrote:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
A few years before, a black football player, Colin Kaepernick, listened clearly to the teachings Dr. King gave him.
By all accounts, he’s just a backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, and the impression he’s supposed to create for the public wouldn’t have left the field. But he knows in his heart that the discriminatory policies and exploitation of blacks and other minorities in this country have not been erased by the Civil Rights Act’s. It continues in other forms, with police brutality as one of the most obvious serious but undiscussed social problems: almost every year, a disproportionate number of men of dark skin are killed by the police. They often shoot to kill for flimsy reasons, yet time and time again they are not charged or acquitted by juries.
As the most watched sport in America, football is an integral part of American culture. In an effort to lift the spirit of America into the hearts for everyone watching, the national anthem is played at every NFL game. Kaepernick wants those viewers to understand that sports are not exclusive of politics and society, so starting in 2016, he started refusing to stand up and staged sit-ins when the national anthem played. Later, at the suggestion of a football player and veteran, Kaepernick stopped sitting and instead got down on one knee during the anthem, and The same as Martin Luther King Jr. once did.
In September 2017, President Trump lashed out at Kaepernick (without directly naming him) and all the athletes who protested with him during the national anthem at a speech in Huntsville, Alabama. Under the cheers from nearly all white supporter crowd, he called on NFL team owners to fire players who dared to protest, saying: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of those NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired!“
In response to the threat, the NFL players decided not to give in but to protest on a larger scale. The players joined hands and got down on one knee to boos from the crowd as the flag was raised. By this time, Kaepenick had left the 49ers, but was not pursued by any team due to the oppression of right-wing media and political opinions. Until now, he is still a free agent.
On this Juneteenth, many will remember George Floyd. The massive Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the death of George Floyd will also come to remember that Colin Kaepernick tried to protest silently but was still rejected and jeered. One New York Times reporter who reassessed this issue recently wrote: “Kneeling may be a simple gesture, but the controversy about it is a mirror to the complexity of race in America.”
America’s founding philosophy is based upon the writings of many scholars of the Age of Enlightenment, none more so than John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others who repeatedly emphasized the “social contract”: when individuals agree to abide by common rules and accept corresponding obligations, they are bound by those rules on their own behalf and on behalf of others. The sovereignty of the political communities can only belong to the people if others are free from violence and other kinds of harm. Many black Americans, having gained their freedom, are profoundly aware that this concept is the unshakable foundation of this country, and they want to follow it so they could become an equally respected part of society.
Even at a time when the dehumanizing Jim Crow laws continued to cut off the channels of development, many black Americans did not give up the way to build a space for themselves. A century ago, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after oil was discovered, many blacks moved to run businesses there in a neighborhood called Greenwood, which was racially segregated. Most blacks could not work with oil jobs because whites refused to grant them work permits. Even so, they have built a wealthy community here, starting from doing humble service jobs, which black activist Booker T. Washington once called it “Black Wall Street”.
But the boom quickly attracted the loathing and antipathy of the local white population. Tulsa Tribune, a local tabloid, published an incendiary front-page story in May 1921 under the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator”, only to discover later that it was an unremarkable encounter between a female white elevator operator and a black teenager. White people were inflamed by the false idea that Greenwood’s prosperity was breeding black crimes against white people. Two days later, about a thousand self-armed white men entered Greenwood, burned houses, attacked shops, beat and shot all people who tried to protect themselves and their properties, and the police and National Guard not only did nothing, but even took part in the massacre themselves.
Greenwood was burnt to ashes; 39 people (the Tulsa Commission estimated the actual number to be about 200 in 2001) died in the riots, more than 800 were injured, and nearly all Greenwood residents were displaced and became homeless.
Koritha Mitchell, a professor of literatary history at Ohio State University, characterized the riot, like all race riots in American history, as not motivated by stupidity or ignorance, but by what she referred to as “know-your-place aggression.” Whether it’s microagression, violent assault or murder, the aim is to remind the target group of their “proper” subordination.
What makes this memory even heavier in history is that historical narratives, long dominated by white men, has selectively forgotten it. For decades, the deadly events of that day have been crammed into the country’s secret vault. They have not been mentioned in mainstream textbooks, except by the folk singer Woody Guthrie and the novel Grapes of Wrath.
LaGarrett King, an associate professor of social studies education at the University of Missouri, said the American schools’ history program aims to tell a success story, a “history of American progress,” with the theme that America has overcome the problems we face because we are America. Yet everything that contradicts this narrative of progress is being erased directly from textbooks. The experiences and oppression of black Americans, Latinos, indigenous people, Asians and other minorities have been largely ignored or marginalized because only then can the concept of progressive history fit into these narratives.
Remembering such pain and suffering is something that should be obvious to anyone who wants to celebrate Juneteenth. And the disorder in education and collective memory has far outlasted the Tulsa massacred being unmentioned. Reversing historical narratives to whitewash the stains in American history had been long perpetuated by textbooks since the end of the Civil War. The Daughters of the Confederacy, a political organization made up of female descendants of Confederate soldiers, played a major role. They constantly lobbied local governments to erect Confederate monuments throughout the South, including in important public places like the courthouse and the State Capitol, many of which remain today.
The group’s political lobby also influenced the composition of many books in the South: from children’s books to novels and textbooks, generations grew up in a completely whitewashed pseudo-history that further defended racist laws. Gone with the Wind, the book which the movie of the same name was temporarily removed from HBO a few days ago because it glorifies slavery and white supremacy, is created from the warped world that author Margaret Mitchell grew up in.
The moral shortcomings caused by intentional white-washing of education are hard to imagine: in 1916’s A Child’s History of North Carolina , slavery is portrayed as a natural order because of its profitability. This point of discourse begins in Jamestown, one of the earliest settlements of the United States. Jamestown was the first American colony where Europeans imported slaves, and the book claims that because agriculture and the tobacco trade required labor, importing Slavery was necessary. Enslaved people “were allowed all the freedom they seemed to want, and were given the privilege of visiting other plantations when they chose to do so. All that was required of them was to be in place when work time came. At the holiday season they were almost as free as their masters.”
In 2018, a San Antonio-based charter high school asked students to list the “positive aspects” of slavery. The textbook referenced for the assignment was Pearson’s Prentice Hall Classics: A History of the United States. in which the sections dealing with slavery states (Emphasize from QZ):
But the “peculiar institution,” as Southerners came to call it, like all human institutions should not be oversimplified. While there were cruel masters who maimed or even killed their slaves (although killing and maiming were against the law in every state), there were also kind and generous owners. The institution was as complex as the people involved. Though most slaves were whipped at some point in their lives, a few never felt the lash. Nor did all slaves work in the fields. Some were house servants or skilled artisans. Many may not have even been terribly unhappy with their lot, for they knew no other.
It’s been more than 100 years. Everything changed. Nothing changed.
Black Americans should never live in a perpetual state of great struggle for self-identity, living with a broken social contract and a in the reality of negativity. Juneteenth is an opportunity to re-establish a shared understanding, one that no longer demands acceptance, recalls itself historical opportunity. This moment will be marked by cheers and celebrations of the most powerful and lasting response to the enduring racism that has stood in this country, the most savage comeback against prejudices and injustices.