Juneteenth Reflections: Narratives Untold & What History Demands

juin 19, 2022


Juneteenth is a history of freedom denied, of emancipation prolonged, of Black, enslaved folks in Texas who were erroneously denied their freedom. 

Juneteenth, the compounding of June and nineteenth occurs within a particular context and tells a specific history. Juneteenth emerges from the melting of Texas’ distinct chronology, a state known for rebellion with white settlers far outnumbering enslaved people, at the cusp of the Reconstruction Period, before the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. It was a transitional moment for the U.S and many Black folks from legalized enslavement to racialized servitude and systemic impoverishment. 

That day, the declaration of General Order No. 3 in Galveston did not secure emancipation for those freed folks. Many were met with violence as they tried to acquire this freedom, many would be required to fulfill a final harvest, and even as freed people, many would remain indebted to the slave owners with no land or resources of their own. 

Juneteenth was not the total abolition of slavery throughout the United States; Kentucky and Delaware would continue to be slave states until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which Mississippi only officially ratified in 2013. The Thirteenth Amendment also created a legal funnel for slavery to be re-established under the guise of the criminal justice system. And many freed folks would soon face incarceration for “transgressions” such as squatting when, by design, their harvest failed to cover the expense of remaining tenants on the land of their labor.  

With its nuanced history, Juneteenth is particularly vulnerable to erasure and misrepresentation, especially as a national holiday. It is our responsibility to ensure we do not commodify Juneteenth and that we resist the urge to allow the Black folks enslaved in Texas to be the backdrop of this history. We must tell the stories of enslaved people thoughtfully. Juneteenth is the activation of remembrance of people whose narratives were often untold. 

Saidiya Hartman speaks to this phenomenon in Venus in Two Acts, the absence of the accounts of enslaved people, specifically enslaved African women, in the archive. Where these Black lives did appear in histories, they were denied identity, subjugated to an archetype, and dismissed to exist between the lines. 

Saidiya asks, “How can narrative embody life in words and at the same time respect what we cannot know? How does one listen for the groans and cries, the undecipherable songs, the crackle of fire in the cane fields, the laments for the dead, and the shouts of victory, and then assign words to all of it? Is it possible to construct a story from ‘the locus of impossible speech’ or resurrect lives from the ruins? – Or is narration its own gift and its own end, that is, all that is realizable when overcoming the past and redeeming the dead are not?”   

In our work as storytellers, narratives have a particular value. The descriptions of jubilation on June 19, 1865, birth the tradition of celebration that Juneteenth has become. It is the lives and stories of these freedpeople that their descendants have recounted across generations, ensuring that the preservation of this peculiar history lived to see national and international recognition. Collecting individual records across this period brings life to the history’s insights. 

This preservation of history channels intergenerational dialogue. We see this conversation, a commitment to the knowledge history holds, in the life and advocacy of Ms. Opal Lee, known as the grandmother of Juneteenth. In both the continuation of the celebration and the acknowledgment of their unfreedom, of our own unfreedoms, we can interact and continue to respond to what the history demands. Engaging, deepening understanding, and acknowledging those who lived these histories and how the history fits into the greater context of that time and current conversations, creates room to ideate toward equity in today’s calls for freedom. 

Further, this reemergence and mainstream popularization of this singular history is an opportunity for us to remember that history is evidence. History offers insight into circumstances and grounds our work for equity in actual people, both the living and those deceased. Juneteenth offers a vantage point into the inequality of the time, and from that view, we can see both the progress and continuation of inequality, of freedoms unobtained. History is an indicator and essential factor in measuring change or impact

Thus, there is an insistence that we, particularly Black people, descendants of enslaved people from the Texas region, bring life to those stories without romanticizing them or ostracizing them from the critical truth that emancipation remains prolonged and justice unknown, for the globally actively marginalized. As we celebrate, we must also acknowledge the road from that date to our current moment, where globally Black, and other members of the marginalized majority, continue to long for freedoms promised.  

Photo credit: Derek Lamar via Unsplash

T. Courtney Williams Associate Strategy Director, Racial Equity Impact Practice
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