From the September-October 2021 issue of News & Letters
While I was working early in the morning on an atypical sunny warm day in San Francisco, a brother walked by me and said, “June 19 is now a federal holiday!” It stymied me. I had known about Juneteenth, but I had not spent a lot of time thinking about it. I have learned that no declaration from a politician can serve as a “beacon on the hill.” The U.S. has never apologized, not even recognized slavery as an integral part of U.S. history.
President Joseph Biden appears to want to pacify the descendants of slaves with the recognition of the day when slaves in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln.
SLAVES FORCED LINCOLN’S HAND
The Emancipation Proclamation was a political act forced on Lincoln by the slaves, whose fight for freedom gave a human content to the seemingly unending, unspeakable carnage in North/South battles over territory and Lincoln’s constitutional cause to “save the union.” The recurring slave revolts first inspired the Abolitionists and then Blacks demanded to join the army to fight in the Civil War. Their struggle for self-emancipation is worth delving into, and celebrating, not merely its reflection in politics.
One reason Juneteenth was significant was that, over the course of the war, a lot of slaves were brought to Texas. How did so many more slaves get to Texas? To finance the war with the North, the Confederacy demanded contributions in cash or, if that was not possible, in slaves. To avoid making such a “donation,” slave owners in the South force-marched more than 150,000 slaves into Texas.
Think of what a rude awakening it was for those slaves who thought that they would actually be free men and women. Some of the newly freed slaves had great hopes for their future. Others were more skeptical. Perhaps unconsciously or consciously they knew better. They sensed there would be a struggle to be actually free. The politically promised freedom turned out to be false, because it was so short-lived. When the former chattel slaves experienced the reality of their “freedom,” they discovered that their fate had not altered significantly in any concrete manner for their benefit.
Today’s slave descendants don’t have much information about the dashed hopes of the “freed” slaves who did not fully experience true freedom. It is not merely a tragedy that those ex-slaves lived under the horrendous conditions that equaled that of slavery, though under another name. Tenant farming, sharecropping, was another form of indentured servitude.
Laws were passed to allow patrollers to arrest Black people, the “justice” system convicted them of any number of transgressions, and plantation owners used prisoners as practically free labor, as though slavery was never abolished. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings and pogroms of entire towns—like the Tulsa massacre recently in the news on its 100th anniversary—all were the old society’s response to a hope of Black freedom.
LIMITED FREEDOMS NOW IN JEOPARDY
Today’s descendants of these slaves are asked to accept an interpretation of that history that centers on acts of the government, not on those of slaves asserting themselves in their lives. Biden’s recognition of the day slaves “received” their freedom from the government, might help secure the African-American vote for the Democratic Party.
But even this limited freedom is under attack. Texas’s Democratic legislators had to leave the state to try to prevent passage of laws that would gut voting rights for whole sections of the population. Malcolm X was right when he said, “If your master gives you something, he can take it back.” There is a huge difference between civil rights and human rights. Civil rights can be taken away, your human rights you are born with.
As important as it is to defend our civil rights, being human means more than having rights. It means being recognized as fully human and free in one’s everyday activity. This freedom is much more concrete than any political declaration.