JUNETEETH. The latest National Holiday to sweep the USA with T-shirts in Walmarts, parades, picnics and millions of other ways corporate America will use June 19th to commodify a day that is holy to me and to mine.
What is Juneteenth? It’s the day, June 19, 1865, that Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger announced to the slave-holding community of Galveston, Texas, that President Abraham Lincoln had freed enslaved people in rebel states two and a half years earlier. He also told them that the Civil War was over, the South lost and that they had to comply with the new-to-them 13th Amendment and emancipate their slaves. The White slave owners only obeyed Major General Granger because he was there with the winning Union Army to enforce emancipation.
So, my ancestors suffered two and a half years of additional enforced slavery because White slaveowners knew about the Emancipation Proclamation and refused to enact it because…PROFIT and States Rights said they could. The hopes of the Confederacy were that the Confederate Rebels of the South would win the Civil War and slavery would would last forever. President Lincoln, seeing the Confederate States not enacting the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, was stuck with a torn country and a Civil War.
Congress submitted many bills about abolishing slavery everywhere in the Union. The newly-proposed rewritten 13th Amendment to the Constitution did indeed free all enslaved beings anywhere in the USA and its territories. It became the law on January 1, 1865. Texans didn’t care. Only Six months after the 13th Amendment became law and two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was declared did the Texans comply (at gunpoint).
You may be wondering why Lincoln only freed the enslaved in the Confederate States leaving half a million others still suffering the hell of slavery. So was I, so I researched: just what was Lincoln thinking? Turns out, Lincoln was thinking that the 13th Amendment as proposed by New York Senator William Seward was a great way to placate the Southern Slave-owning States and keep them from succeeding. The original 13th Amendment to the Constitution would have made slavery constitutional and permanent — and Lincoln supported it. He said so in his Inaugural speech as President. It passed both the House and the Senate! Illinois, Maryland and Ohio immediately ratified it. The only thing that stopped it becoming National Law was the Civil War. The very thing the original 13th Amendment was created to prevent.
A reviewer of the film “Lincoln” said on WBUR radio that, gave in-depth historical context:
“Although its ratification was disrupted by the Civil War, the Corwin Amendment is not actually dead. To this day, it lies dormant, ready to be ratified by the required number of states. Its adoption by the House and Senate is now a constitutional fact that cannot be reversed.
Even though it was last approved by a state in 1861, if another 35 states voted today to approve the Corwin Amendment (or perhaps 36, since some dispute Illinois’ ratification vote), there would be a genuine question of constitutional law whether it overruled the current 13th Amendment.”
Gary Dauphin of the California African American Museum wrote that “By the end of February 1865, eighteen states had ratified it, nine short of the two-thirds needed under Article V of the Constitution. The question of who could ratify and under what circumstances was not a small one. The new state legislatures in those parts of the Confederacy that had fallen by February of 1865 were either nonexistent or in disarray. [Confederate General] Lee would not surrender until April 9, 1865, Lincoln would be assassinated on April 14th and the final shots of the Civil War were yet to be fired in June. Full ratification did not occur until December 6, 1865, when the ex-Confederate state of Georgia became the needed 27th state, with final certification coming on December 18, 1865.” Thank you Georgia!
Mr. Dauphin continued to teach me that of the Nine remaining States that COULD have ratified the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery and made the freed African-Americans citizens before the end of the Civil War, before Lincoln’s assassination, but didn’t were California, who ratified the Amendment on December 19th, 1865. Oregon, Florida, Iowa, and New Jersey would also ratify within a few months, whereas Texas would not get to it until 1870. The Delaware legislature did not formally abolish slavery until 1901, Kentucky’s not until 1976. The last state to formally abolish slavery was Mississippi, where the secretary of state did not certify the legislature’s ratification of the 13th Amendment until February 7, 2013.
Let that sink in. And let us see with our awakened eyes the gaping loophole in the very lovely 13th Amendment that plagues our Society to this day:
“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 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Loophole: “…except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
A person convicted of a crime was allowed to be put in slavery as punishment. This is how Slave Catchers, people who hunted and caught runaway slaves, became the sheriffs and returned Blacks back to bondage for crimes made up and trumped up. Free Black people were dangerous. They could exact revenge on White people and kill them all for the 400 years of slavery we suffered. This is how possessing Black skin became criminalized. This is how Jim Crows were created. Look a White person in the eye: go to jail. Walk on the sidewalk at the same time as a White person: go to jail. Dare in any way to be a citizen with rights and you went to jail. That is, if they didn’t lynch you, shoot you or bomb you first…with full impunity, of course.
Ava DuVernay made a phenomenal film about the13th Amendment called “13th.” The legal scholar Michelle Alexander suggests in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
Alexander outlines in great detail how prisons are modern day plantations then you don’t know how MANY corporations have their goods and services made by inmates, including the makers of military weapons and machinery, for a few pennies.
The original thirteen colonies that fought against taxation and lack of certain freedoms enforced on them by the British Monarchy fought and won their Independence on July 4th, 1776. That Freedom from oppression ONLY applied to Whites. The courageous enslaved Africans who managed to escape their plantations to fight on the side of the British were emancipated. The rest of the millions of my enslaved ancestors watched freedom be denied them once again. As the great Abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, when asked on July 5th, 1852 to speak about Freedom and the Fourth of July so poignantly said, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked them, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?”
Douglass continued by asking,
“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. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”
Celebrating Emancipation, the other name for Juneteenth with a National Holiday seems hollow. What are African-Americans free of? We are heavily policed, incarcerated and murdered. Our healthcare is negligible, at best. Our communities have poor air quality, water and pollution. Our schools are underfunded, under-resourced and are intentionally used to feed the extensively documented “school-to-prison pipeline”
From the storming of the Nation’s Capital building to all of the murder of innocent African-Americans by Police; to the intricately designed system of oppression and bondage that is systemic racism, it is hard to see the making of Juneenth a National Holiday when I am still not free to sit in Starbucks and wait for a friend without being arrested; when a White person can call the police on me and I end up arrested or killed; when I can’t drive while Black; or sit in my dormitory lounge; when my hair in braids without getting suspended by my White teacher; cannot sleep in my bed without being killed by the Police; can not live in Flint, Michigan AND have water to drink that won’t kill me; when today, my rights to vote are being assailed and denied State by State.
It took 32,485 days from the signing of the Declaration of Independence for many enslaved African-Americans to be set free on Juneteenth in 1865.
32,485 days is exactly 89 years later.
Today, 245 years after Independence Day in 1776 and 156 years after Texas freed the last enslaved beings (at gunpoint) enslaved in a Confederate state on June 19, 1865, I will continue to celebrate my ancestors on this holy day for me. Our freedoms have been hard fought for and won by much bloodshed. It didn’t come all at once. It still isn’t all here now. I have celebrated Juneteenth because I thought that all of the enslaved were freed, so this was our Emancipation Day. That was until I learned that a half a million people were left in bondage by Lincoln’s Proclamation to appease loyal slave owners who stayed in the Union.
So today, I will offer my prayers of gratitude to my ancestors on this Juneteenth to honor all who were enslaved in this country and its territories and who fought and died for their freedom like Mum Bett who was an enslaved woman in Massachusetts, whose owners would not let her rest. She said, “Any time while I was a slave, if one minute freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it — just to stand one minute on God’s airth [earth] a free woman — I would.” She took the name Elizabeth Freeman after the court ruling.
Elizabeth Freeman was the first enslaved African American to file and win a freedom suit in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling, in Freeman’s favor, found slavery to be inconsistent with the 1780 Massachusetts State Constitution.
The writer Hilton Als wrote, “People are quick to make monuments of anything they live long enough to control.” This recognizes that Holidays and such are created to make corporations money and to detract and distract from the real fighting for freedom that is feeding the Black Lives Matter Movement and many other Liberation movements happening now.
This holiday could easily become and most likely will become, “We gave you a holiday. What do you need reparations for? What are you whining about with your protests anyway? Take your t-shirt (made in a sweatshop for slave wages), go back to being submissive and be grateful.”
So I will celebrate with Lucille Clifton, one of my favorite poets, who asks in her poem, “Won’t you celebrate with me”
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
Today, I am a bit fearful that the lessons of Juneteenth will be lost to commercialism like most Black freedom fighters and their message have been again and again and again co-opted, watered down, and neutered.
I choose to continue to commemorate Juneteenth because it reminds me that our fight for freedom is never won and never done in this country. As hyphenated-beings, we have learned that at any minute our freedom can be stripped from us just like our lives.
Though I always thought Juneteenth celebrated the freedom of all enslaved Black beings, I now know that it was the last version of the 13th Amendment that liberated us in 1865 on paper. As I outlined earlier, States rights give States the power to ratify laws in their own Congress….or not. So my celebration today of Juneteenth will be two-fold:
First, as acknowledgement that the last people in a Confederate Rebel State to hear the Emancipation Proclamation were in Texas, when they were set free.
Second, as an acknowledgement that I, descendent of enslaved Africans and African-Americans, am a citizen of this country that my people built and that endows me with certain inalienable rights but not all the rights of a citizen. Before this amendment, my ancestors were only seen as 3/5th human ~ property like chattel~ in the Constitution. For a hyphenated-being that this African-American is, this is as good as it gets.
“La luta continua!” The struggle for freedom continues!