How to Truly Honor Juneteenth
I’m originally from Houston and grew up celebrating Juneteenth. I’m having mixed feelings about how Juneteenth has evolved since it became a federal holiday in the US in 2021. It’s being turned into a “Second Fourth of July,” and as the great Val of A Chorus Line said, “that ain’t it kid.”
On this day in 1865, Union soldiers arrived on the shores of Galveston and issued General Order Number 3., which informed the formerly enslaved people in Texas that they were actually free* - two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. (https://www.galvestonhistory.org/news/juneteenth-and-general-order-no-3)
The word “free” has an asterisk because freedom for the formerly enslaved had conditions. When General Order 3 was issued, it mandated that the formerly enslaved CONTINUE WORKING ON THE PLANTATIONS. You read that right. It explicitly states that they had to “remain quietly in their present homes and work for wages… and they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” How is this freedom? Can you imagine being forced by an employer that enslaved you, treated you with brutality, and fully dehumanized you?
True sovereignty and self determination would have allowed the formerly enslaved to decide their fates and if and how they would labor. An accountable nation would have required repair of the harm that happened to enslaved people. The United States never has made amends for the destruction slavery had on Black people. People were killed. Families were separated and sold to the highest bidder. And even after slavery, this country did everything it could to continue to extract labor from Black people for the least amount of money possible through legal mandates like what we see in order number 3. This country has always been willing to dehumanize and exploit Black people if it means that a business owner has a fatter bottom line,
To truly honor Juneteenth, I believe you have to reckon with the whole story. You have to reckon with the choices those in power made to prioritize the needs of plantation owners over freedom for Black people. You have to reckon with the fact that the only reparations that have ever been paid in this country went to “slave owners” in Washington DC to remunerate them for their losses when slavery ended there. Can you imagine? They made sure to pay the people who exploited the enslaved but not the people actually enslaved. That is not making amends. That is not accountability. I call on you to reckon with that today.
This is the history of Juneteenth. If you want to celebrate it, it must be while you hold the truths of this history in your mind. I call on us to explore what duty we have to repair the past harms of slavery and the laws that followed. There’s a bill that has never been paid because the country prioritized profits over the humanity of Black people.
What will YOU do to honor this history?