Free-ish Since 1865: The Meaning of Juneteenth

by Michael Brandon McCormack

With our heightened awareness of the Tulsa Massacre, Juneteenth, for many of us will “hit differently” this year. People who have never celebrated, and, yes, some who had never heard of, Juneteenth are celebrating this year. And that’s no shade to anybody who is just now learning about Juneteenth because we know that Black history has been erased, avoided, distorted, and inadequately taught in our public school systems- or for that matter in our universities. Even some of us who know about Juneteenth, or celebrate it, don’t know much about the history behind the holiday.

We just know that it is Black folks’ alternative to the 4th of July. The 4th of July, a holiday that celebrates American independence from the British, in 1776, at a time when chattel slavery was still deeply entrenched in the fabric of the United States, which celebrated its freedom while keeping people of African descent in bondage.

This contradiction between independence and bondage is what prompted abolitionist, Frederick Douglas, to pose the provocative question in 1852, “What to the slave is your 4th of July?” Douglas answered his own rhetorical question, insisting, “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 Douglas spoke these words in 1852, more than a decade before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

But, make no mistake, it was not Abraham Lincoln who “freed the enslaved.” Enslaved Africans had been struggling, resisting, and fighting to free themselves for centuries; they had been striking blows at slavery with every mutiny on the ships, with every uprising on the plantation, with every destruction of tools, with every poisoning of the master’s food, with every abolitionist speech, with every late-night spiritual in the hush harbor encouraging their brothers and sisters to “steal away to Jesus,” which was code for escape. Enslaved Africans were not just sitting back waiting for Abraham Lincoln, the prototypical white savior figure, Black folks exerted their agency in the struggle for freedom. So, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, in 1863, it just made official, what Black folks had been fighting for since 1619.

But it wouldn’t be until June 19th, 1865, a full two and a half years later, that word of freedom would reach the furthest corners of the Confederacy. It wasn’t until Union Army Major General Gordon Granger and 1,800 federal troops finally “pulled up” in Galveston and served notice, with General Orders No.3, stating “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” that it finally became official that slavery had legally ended in the United States.

And, when enslaved Africans heard the news, some were shocked, others set out to find family and friends who had been sold away, but many began to celebrate their legal emancipation. And, that celebration was the beginning of what we now call Juneteenth. So, first and foremost, Juneteenth is a day of celebration. We celebrate our ancestor’s struggles for freedom. We celebrate the sacrifices they made so that we could be here today. We celebrate, and give thanks, to all of those who lived and died and paved the way for us. So, it’s a celebration! We turn up! We barbeque. We dance. We play spades. We have pageants. Our Texas brothers and sisters have rodeos. Our Louisville brothers and sisters sip bourbon.

But Juneteenth is not just a day of celebration. It’s also a day of education. It is a day where we commit to educating ourselves on the history of Black people in America, and throughout the African diaspora, that has been erased, denied, and distorted. It is also a day for political education and consciousness-raising. Many have protested the injustices that are happening all across this country and that’s good. But we also need to educate ourselves on the policies and ideologies behind the issues that we’re protesting. We need to understand the ins and outs of different positions on reforming, disinvesting, and abolishing, not just the police, but the entire prison industrial complex and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s a day to educate ourselves not only on policing, proper, but on all of the various ways that Black and poor and immigrant and queer and trans bodies are policed and controlled and surveilled and disciplined and punished in this country by everyday citizens, employers, teachers, and others. It’s a day of education because our ancestors have always understood that knowledge is power.

But Juneteenth is not just a day of celebration and education. It’s also a day of agitation. It is a day of recommitting ourselves to the ongoing Black freedom struggle. We know that while slavery was legally abolished in 1865, it was never fully eradicated. Sadiya Hartman argues that we are dealing with the afterlife of slavery. Slavery takes on new forms and permutations. White supremacy, anti-blackness, state-sponsored and vigilante violence, captivity, and Black death still plague us day in and day out. While we celebrate freedom on Juneteenth, we know that Juneteenth reminds us that for Black Americans, full freedom has always been denied, delayed, or diluted. That’s why we have Juneteenth shirts that say “Free-ish” since 1865. We’ve never been fully free, just free-ish, but every day, we’re fighting to get free-er and free-er.

With every generation, we have fought, or agitated, for a fuller realization of our freedom. And, despite what we often hear to the contrary, by news media and critics, this generation of young people and millennials are some of the fiercest freedom fighters we’ve ever seen. These young people are out here agitating, and disturbing the peace so that we can get free-er, and free-er, and free-er. They are calling for us not just to end police brutality, but to completely reimagine our notions of public safety. But, we’ve got to agitate not just for the reimagination and transformation of public safety, but also public education, and public housing, and public health, and public resources, and our entire conception of the public good.

And that takes all of us. All of us have work to do. Fred Hampton Jr. reminded us that all of us are not going to be some front-line freedom fighters, but all of us have a role to play in striking a blow for freedom! Activists have a role to play, politicians have a role to play, business owners have a role to play, educators have a role to play, ministers have a role to play, artists have a role to play, parents have a role to play, children have a role to play, you have a role to play, and I have a role to play. And not just the educated, professional, middle class, well-spoken, respectable folks, but the unemployed and those without formal education, our brothers and sisters in the streets, the so-called thugs and sex workers- all of us have a role to play in this ongoing Black freedom struggle!

Happy Juneteenth, y’all let’s celebrate this ongoing struggle for freedom!

Michael Brandon McCormack is a Hooks Academic Research Fellow and Associate Professor of Pan-African Studies and Comparative Humanities (Religious Studies) at the University of Louisville.

 

2 thoughts on “Free-ish Since 1865: The Meaning of Juneteenth

  1. Jesus Christ didn’t call us to be agitated and disturbers of the peace for social change. There will never come a day in which we celebrate having finally achieved anything definitive by being agitators and disturbers of the peace. This article only advocates for never ending despair.

    “Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
    ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭16:24‬ ‭ESV‬‬

    “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
    ‭‭Romans‬ ‭12:18‬ ‭ESV‬‬

    The only social change of any consequence is that of Spiritual revival in this country. You and your followers are on the wrong path.

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