What, to the Descendants of Enslaved Africans, Is Juneteenth?

by Aviva Helena Neff

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

-Frederick Douglass, July 5th, 1852

American independence is celebrated nationally on July 4th, but as author and abolitionist Frederick Douglass noted in his 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” many of America’s people had yet to secure their freedom. Thirteen years after Douglass’ searing declaration, the 13th Amendment was ratified, stating “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The first of three “Reconstruction Amendments,” the 13th Amendment immediately nullified the Fugitive Slave Act and the 3/5 Compromise, widening the scope of President Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation to include the entire United States.

As the tide of the Civil War decidedly turned in the Union’s favor, General Gordon Granger famously read Lincoln’s federal orders on June 19th, 1865 in Galveston, Texas, declaring the last of the nation’s enslaved people to be immediately freed. There have been many attempts to explain the two-year delay between the Emancipation Proclamation’s enactment and the legal abolition of slavery in Texas. Some believe that a messenger bearing the news of freedom was killed on his way to Texas, while others suggest that White Texans delayed Emancipation in order to uphold enslavement as long as possible. The news was met with an array of reactions from formerly enslaved people—cheers, shouts, stunned silence, and an immediate eagerness to leave the hellish conditions of plantation life filled the air. Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, or Juneteenth, as it is most popularly known, is the unsung day of celebration that more and more Black Americans are demanding the nation at large honor. However, Juneteenth is not simply a day of happiness; it is a day that marks more than 400 years of enslavement, racist violence, and resistance—yes, sometimes even violent resistance.

Columbus, OH. Courtesy of the author

In my experience as an American historian and a Mixed Black woman, I have found a distinct lack of conversation surrounding the frequency and political impact of enslaved rebellion when it comes to the fight for freedom. The erasure of Black resistance from mainstream historical narratives has shifted the conversation from Black agency and power to White abolition and political maneuvering. This is not to discredit the efforts of intellectuals and politicians who aided the cause through nonviolent means, but as Dr. Ibrahima Seck, Director of Research at the Whitney Plantation notes, “from the time [enslaved people] were brought over here from Africa [….] it was always about resisting.” Academia’s perpetuation of the stereotype of submissive enslaved Africans can be traced directly to Ulrich B. Phillips’ American Negro Slavery, but perhaps a more critical reading of historical literature would indicate the detrimental role that some seemingly “abolitionist texts” written by White Americans played. Take Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The novel, which famously depicts “life among the lowly” is considered by many scholars to have changed the mind of millions of White readers about the rights of enslaved Africans (Uncle Tom’s Cabin was second in popularity only to the Bible in the 19th century). Although its impact is notable, what gives me pause as a contemporary scholar is the way in which Stowe positions passivity and Christian piety in conversation with Tom’s (and by extension, other enslaved Africans’) right to live. Surely, Stowe goes to lengths to demonstrate the incompatibility of Christianity and enslavement, but her “turn the other cheek” rhetoric places the responsibility of peace and forgiveness on the shoulders of the oppressed.

Part of the danger in historicizing racism and suppressing Black resistance lies in the tendency to pretend that equality has been achieved—but, if that were the case, why have there been more than 100 documented race riots, most of which schoolchildren will never learn about? In his Baldwin-inspired autobiography Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son about his own experiences growing up Black in Baltimore and his mis-education in the public school system. Coates describes the frenzied dump of Black history during Februaries, recognized in the United States as Black History Month: “Our teachers urged us toward the example of freedom marchers, Freedom Riders, and Freedom Summers, and it seemed that the month could not pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent?” Coates articulates what many mainstream historians at best fail to recognize and at worst suppress—passivity is not an axiom for Godliness; nonviolence will not protect you from dogs, nooses, or a police officer’s gun.

Columbus, OH. Courtesy of the author

Contemporary scholars are gradually paying more homage to acts of daring resistance perpetrated by enslaved Africans and abolitionists. I learned about John Brown’s “Bleeding Kansas” campaign while in a remarkable US History course at the College of Wooster, a class that has defined my path as a scholar. I’ve read moving plays about Toussaint L’Ouverture, studied Nat Turner’s biblical impetus for bloody rebellion, and will be forever haunted by details of the revolt aboard the Amistad. Curiously enough, a skull allegedly belonging to Nat Turner was briefly housed at my alma mater, the College of Wooster, and subsequently lost after a fire in the early 20th century. Were the bones of one of America’s bravest, bloodiest, and most desperate leaders unceremoniously buried somewhere beneath a dorm room where I slept?

How does one appropriately celebrate an ever-evolving legacy of violence, victory, displacement, and perseverance? Juneteenth.com chronicles the history of the holiday, centering that fateful day in Galveston: “The Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members.” Black people were finally free from their bonds, and to commemorate the day, Black Americans hosted rodeos, beauty pageants, cookouts, dances, and lectures one year after General Granger’s announcement.

Unfortunately, the struggle for freedom and equity was far from over. Jim Crow laws and Black Codes were adopted in almost every major US city in the years following Reconstruction (1865-1877), bringing widespread violence and further ingraining racism into the fabric of our nation. Yet Black Americans fought on, sometimes as peaceful organizers, sometimes as furious rioters. In 1968, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) recognized June 19th as “Solidarity Day of the Poor People’s Campaign,” reviving support for the holiday across the eastern US—most notably in Minneapolis and Milwaukee. Texas was the first state to officially recognize the importance of Juneteenth by declaring it a “holiday of significance…particularly to the Blacks of Texas.” By the 1970s, Juneteenth was re-envisioned to include a celebration of Black America’s contribution to the arts, a decision surely inspired by the Black Arts Movement.

Columbus, OH. Courtesy of the author

What, to the descendants of enslaved Africans, is Juneteenth? The question has been playing across my mind as the calendar draws nearer to June 19th. With the recent slaying of Ahmaud Arbery, insidious discriminatory violence popping up in parks, and Donald Trump arrogantly crediting himself for increasing popularity around the date, it is more important than ever to consider what “Freedom Day” means in 2020. What will I celebrate at the end of this week—my ancestor’s emancipation from a plantation called “Sunnyside” in North Carolina? My great-great-grandfather who penned constitutional readers in a bid to work around literacy tests? Will I honor my grandfather, who attended the March on Washington, by raising money to support protesters resisting in my current city of Columbus, Ohio? Will I toast my mother, who has dedicated her life to undoing racism in a revolutionary classroom? The answer is “yes.” To recognize Juneteenth is to celebrate the dissonance of being a Black American. It is to see what W.E.B. Du Bois called a “double-consciousness” and find harmony, community, and joy amidst the chaos. We have watched our siblings Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Riah Milton, and George Floyd die on cell phones and CCTV footage, while the media maligns their names. We have witnessed the first Black president’s inauguration and graceful exodus while White domestic terrorism continues to rear its head. Black joy is the peaceful protest, and by celebrating Juneteenth, you march along with us, you join the chant: “Black Lives Matter.” But, should you find yourself with the day off of work, I ask that you reflect on the many threads that form the tapestry of Black joy. Consider the battles Black Americans fight to this day for equal housing, education, to style their hair as they please, and to simply not be killed. This year, let’s celebrate Juneteenth by campaigning for justice for those who have been unlawfully taken from us and for the safety of future generations.

Aviva Helena Neff is a Ph.D. candidate in the Ohio State University Department of Theatre, where she is studying Mixed Black American representation throughout history, literature, and performance.

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