Juneteenth and the Problem of American Freedom

Juneteenth and the Problem of American Freedom

Juneteenth and the Problem of American Freedom

Of course, Juneteenth should be recognized as a Black holiday belonging to Black people. But this is not a day purely of joyful celebration.


Being Black in America, one often encounters a paradox: that in a so-called “free” country, one is not Black with impunity; that the “freedom” we lionize in this country began and holds itself together on top of your subjugation.

I often feel this incongruity on Juneteenth. After George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests last year, many corporations declared Juneteenth a company holiday, offering it as a day to “educate” and “reflect,” and now Congress and President Biden have made it a federal holiday. “Juneteenth marks both the long, hard night of slavery and subjugation, and a promise of a brighter morning to come,” Biden said before he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.

Of course, Juneteenth should be recognized as a Black holiday belonging to Black people. But this is not a day purely of joyful celebration. Juneteenth does not mark the end of slavery, as slavery existed in Delaware and Kentucky after Juneteenth, and formerly enslaved Black people were murdered by enslavers after the Union Army was no longer present to enforce emancipation. For me, it’s a day on which the twoness of jubilee and sorrow confront the myth of American freedom, venerated as the inalienable endowment of the promised land. But in this promised land, Black people are seen as foreigners, trespassers on a utopia where white men have claimed Manifest Destiny. That utopia has been purgatory for Black Americans, because the overseers of this terrain are in perpetual negotiation with our removal from it.

Celebrations of Juneteenth have roots in what was known as “Emancipation Day” or “Jubilee Day,” typically celebrated in early January to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation. These celebrations marked the days enslaved people became “freedmen” in their respective cities and typically included prayers, songs, barbecue, “red soda,” inspirational speeches, and a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Juneteenth (a combination of June and nineteenth) commemorates the day Maj. Gen. Granger marched into Galveston, Tex., with 2,000 federal soldiers and enforced General Order No. 3, ending slavery in the isolated island city. Two years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after Robert E. Lee’s surrender, General Granger and his army spread out to churches, government buildings, and homes to read the order. After the news of emancipation was promulgated throughout the city, formerly enslaved Blacks reveled in their freedom, creating what would be known as Juneteenth.

Over the years, celebrations of Juneteenth would spread across Texas. In 1872, the Rev. Jack Yates, Richard Brock, Elisa Dibble, and Richard Allen gathered $1,000 to purchase 10 acres of land in what would be called Emancipation Park to celebrate Juneteenth.

On June 20, 1878, 12 years after the first Juneteenth, a reporter working for Flake’s Bulletin, a newspaper in Galveston, Tex., gave a description of the celebration. “The old plantation melodies…were transformed into a new song and the sunshine of the dreams that once dwelt in their hearts burst full and fair upon them as they both felt and realized the fullness of the freedom that is now theirs—not only to enjoy but to perpetuate…. The colored people of Galveston certainly deported themselves creditably in celebrating ‘their 4th of July.”

Referring to Juneteenth as formerly enslaved people’s Fourth of July establishes a faulty analogy between the freedom white men gained after Independence Day and the emancipation from chattel slavery. No such parallel can be drawn. The comparison is a farce that is reminiscent of the lie enslavers told their newly freed slaves after emancipation, “You’re as free as me now.”

“The Master he says we are all free, but it don’t mean we is white,” said George G. King, who was enslaved in South Carolina. “And it don’t mean we is equal. Just equal for to work and earn our own living and not depend on him for no more meats and clothes.”

W.E.B Du Bois captured this sentiment when he quoted Carl Schurz, a German immigrant and General of the Union Army, who traveled to the South to document conditions after the civil war and gave the following report: “The emancipation of slaves is submitted to only in so far as chattel slavery in the old form could not be kept up; but, although the freedman is no longer considered the property of an individual master, he is considered the slave of society, and all independent State legislation will show a tendency to make him such.”

As Schurz documented, Blacks had been reappraised from the property of an individual to the slave of society. Efforts made during Reconstruction to transition formerly enslaved Blacks into freedom were swiftly repudiated by the former Confederate leaders Andrew Johnson appointed to Congress. As Governor Perry of South Carolina said, “They forget that this is a white man’s government, and intended for white men only.” This sentiment was codified in legislation called “Black Codes.” Black Codes restricted the movement, property ownership, and employment of Black Americans. Black Codes defined Black heritage and made interracial marriage illegal; the terror of lynching proved that “free” Blacks were not free to own their bodies.

After enslaved Blacks were freed in Galveston, white slaveowners faced an existential crisis—freedom was a white man’s endeavor. Had white people allowed “freedmen” to fully engage in their freedom, it would have ruptured the stability of the American caste system—if there are no slaves, it doesn’t work.

When General Granger arrived in Galveston, Tex., to execute General Order No. 3, informing the local citizenry that “all slaves are free,” white people refurbished their identity to steward their whiteness and freedom—and to keep Black citizens as slaves.

On June 27, 1865, The Galveston Daily News published a letter by James Sorley, a friend to the Confederacy. Sorley represented racists’ concerns about idleness among Black people. Sorley spoke with Granger and relayed their conversation to the paper: “From the conversations, I have had on this subject [Granger’s Order No. 3]…I feel authorized, to say to you, that your negroes will not be allowed to wander as vagrants through the country; they are advised to stay with you and work for wages. If they do not they will be made to work for Government without wages.”

If the Emancipation Proclamation and General Order No. 3 killed slavery, the American carceral system and the 13th Amendment gave it its afterlife, allowing slavery as a punishment for a crime.

Vagrancy laws were one of the ways the country reverse-engineered the creation of slaves. After emancipation, freed Blacks were forced to stay on their plantation or risk being arrested as vagrants. Blacks could be arrested and charged a fine if they could present no proof of employment.

Vagrancy laws and the Black Codes have echoes in our contemporary prison-industrial complex and in the violence that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. If slavery exists somewhere, Black people can be brought into it from anywhere—even from “freedom.” Solomon Northup was born “free” in the North until he was kidnapped into slavery in the South. Kalief Browder was “free” in the Bronx until he was seized, arrested, and brought as a captive to Rikers Island. Ahmaud Arbery was “free” until he was shot down in the South like a runaway slave.

In America, Blackness is tethered to slaveness and slavery’s ideological counterpart—freedom—is linked to whiteness. In the same way that a white person knows they are white only because they know they are not Black, a “free” person knows they are free only because they know they are not a slave, which is to say, “to know you are white is to know that you are free.”

This has its roots in the earliest days of white settlement of the United States, when white colonists began to institute racialized slavery and anti-Blackness. Before race-based slavery was legislated in Virginia, slavery was predicated on the capture of non-Christians during warfare. But as the slave population grew from around 32 in 1620 to more than 3,000 in 1680, Blackness as slaveness had become a fixture in the colonies.

Slavery based on religion did not give colonists the sole power to produce and reproduce slaves. To create a system of racialized slavery and freedom, colonists needed to possess the bodies of enslaved Africans and their offspring in perpetuity. Under English common law, children inherited the status of the father, but in 1662, after enslaved Blacks sued for their freedom based on confirmation of their baptism, the law was changed to instead bequeath the status of the mother. This was followed up in 1667 with a law decreeing that baptism did not exempt slaves from bondage.

Once religion and patriarchy were no longer potential safe havens for the enslaved, colonists in Virginia tied Blackness to slaveness with a law in 1682:

And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that all servants…which from and after publication of this act shall be brought or imported into this country, either by sea or land, whether Negroes, Moors, Mollattoes or Indians, who and whose parentage and native country are not christian at the time of their first purchase of such servant by some christian, although afterwards, and before such their importation and bringing into this country, they shall be converted to the christian faith; and all Indians which shall hereafter be sold by our neighbouring Indians, or any other trafiqueing with us as for slaves are hereby adjudged, deemed and taken, and shall be adjudged, deemed and taken to be slaves to all intent and purposes, any law, usage or custome to the contrary notwithstanding.

The population of enslaved persons grew from 32 in 1619 to nearly 4 million by 1863. This law and a slew of others rewrote slavery from a religious doctrine to a secular, racial mandate. With racialized slavery as the new edict, Blackness was an inheritable and immovable trait linked to a Black phenotype. Generations of enslaved Blacks had been excommunicated from political and social life, and severed from their ancestry—effectively relegating Black people to the stratum of non-beings.

The temptation to use romantic euphemisms like “Juneteenth is America’s true Independence Day” makes sense. For the myth of American freedom to be legible, it needs a narrative arc: the country was founded on slavery; the country fought a war; Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves; Congress passed the 13th Amendment. Slavery ended. America is redeemed.

A more accurate understanding of our history suggests that slavery is a multifaceted structure that requires violence to perpetuate itself within and without legality, which is why well-meaning solutions have mitigated racial violence but not eliminated its presence in America. Emancipation did not disrupt the orientation of Blackness as slaveness, or remove white supremacists’ desire to commit acts of violence upon Black people. The psychic relief society finds in mass incarceration is the same relief society found in American slavery. It’s been over 400 years, and America has yet to shake its addiction.

As Isabel Wilkerson points out in her book Caste, slaves were members of a subordinate caste under the rule of the dominant white caste.

To this very day, we see the caste system in operation. In health care access and treatment outcomes, in socioeconomic status, in vulnerability to police violence, in the effects of the coronavirus, Blacks fare worse than whites. All that together means Blacks fare worse than whites in possession of freedom.

I don’t know what will become of Juneteenth in America, but I hope it does not become an approximation of Independence Day. It should be observed in the same spirit as the George Floyd protests: a rebellion in which all pillars of American freedom and capitalism are under indictment. The history of Juneteenth should be used as a tribunal that does not aim to “restore the soul of America” but questions whether it is worthy of resurrection.

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