Juneteenth, George Floyd, and Tulsa: Sweet and bitter
Thinking about this column, I was reminded of a rhetorical device that an esteemed academic has frequently used: items at the top of his inbox. For me, there has been a plethora of items at the top of my inbox, specifically around the upcoming celebration of Juneteenth. Everyone likes a party. However, even with this week’s surprisingly swift passage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day federal holiday, I see a mix of bitter with the sweet in the numerous invitations and announcements from cultural, civic, social justice, and educational institutions.
Here’s the history: Belatedly, on June 19, 1865, enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned from Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger that the Civil War had ended and that President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation two and a half years earlier. There were celebrations then and there have been celebrations since.
The spirit of the Juneteenth events seems hopeful. Yet, for me, not even a Juneteenth party can easily erase the pain that the United States has just relived. The searing one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder was followed by the Pulitzer Prize special citation for Darnella Frazier, the young woman who videotaped the killing. And President Joe Biden helped mark the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre with the pledge that the bitter history of the deaths and destruction by a white mob in the once-prosperous Black neighborhood of Greenwood would never be erased.
At a virtual introduction of the new director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, I learned that the museum and the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, have jointly acquired the Amy Sherald portrait of Breonna Taylor commissioned by Vanity Fair. The 26-year-old medical worker, who was not suspected of any crime, was fatally shot when police forced their way into her apartment. The first exhibition featuring the work, held at the Speed Art Museum, was titled “Promise, Witness, Remembrance.”
Remembrance was also the theme of one of the first Juneteenth messages in my inbox, an invitation from the New-York Historical Society to its discussion with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Harvard Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, who has just written a new book, “On Juneteenth.”
Unlike her groundbreaking examinations of President Thomas Jefferson, his slave Sally Hemings, and their children, this book is more personal — part memoir about her childhood in East Texas and part state history. I have heard Professor Gordon-Reed before at the Historical Society. She serves as a trustee there, and for more than a decade, I have been an active member and helped launch the museum’s African American affiliate group, the Frederick Douglass Council.
Professor Gordon-Reed’s comments emphasized the bitter and sweet duality of Juneteenth. She noted that Juneteenth became a state holiday in Texas in 1980. But she said wryly, “My father said that slaves haven’t been freed yet.” She added: “For me, the day is a time to think about and commune with spirits of the past who were treated as property by law. The day also provided a sense of hope for many.”
Amid the celebrations by the newly emancipated, Professor Gordon-Reed noted that there had been instances of the celebrants being whipped for embracing their freedom. She added: “Slavery created a society with a racial hierarchy. Whites benefited even if they hadn’t owned slaves.” Asked about the meaning of integration, her assessment was that “integration was seen as a loss for whites.”
Her perspective on the coming Juneteenth holiday was nuanced. “We need another day of hope, a day to recognize what enslaved people felt when their hopes for emancipation were raised.”
And Professor Gordon-Reed offered a perspective on teaching painful episodes of Black history to white Americans who may just be learning about them. “We have gotten better at teaching Black history,” she said. But the burden for teaching history should not rest only on schools or school districts. “White parents should learn and teach this history to their kids,” she said. “This history has to suffuse the culture.”
Perhaps suffusing the culture explains why my inbox is so full and why I have also found so many Juneteenth news articles to bookmark.
Last month, Hennepin County, Minnesota — where Mr. Floyd was murdered — voted to make Juneteenth a paid holiday for its 8,000 county employees. And this week, when the U.S. Congress passed a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, Republican Senator John Cornyn from Texas, the sponsor of the bill, said: “The freedom of all Americans that Texas celebrates every Juneteenth should be celebrated all across the nation. The passage of this bill represents a big step in our nation’s journey toward equality.”
And yet, in Tulsa on June 1, President Biden emphasized the need to do more than rely on symbolism when remembering this nation’s history: “We do ourselves no favors by pretending none of this ever happened. … We should know the good, the bad, everything,” he said. “That’s what great nations do: They come to terms with their dark sides.”
In establishing the holiday, the federal government has, in essence, caught up with the states, most of which already recognized Juneteenth, as have a growing list of businesses that provide paid time off.
While a national recognition of emancipation is welcome, I remain skeptical. My inability to embrace too much of the sweet is reflected in the newest findings of the 2020 Women of Color in Business: Cross-Generational Survey© that my co-author, Bonita Stewart, and I conducted in December.
Last year’s racial and social justice protests seemed to impact Black women more profoundly than those of other races. Among Black women, 54% reported greatly or somewhat increased stress, with 39% for Latina women, 34% for Asian women, and 30% for white women.
I feel that stress too. I am not ready to move beyond the sadness of the George Floyd and Tulsa Race Massacre anniversaries. I am not gladdened by the cheery Juneteenth events stacking up in my inbox. And in the aftermath of Congress’ swift passage of the new Juneteenth holiday, there are already some grumbles that the vote may provide political cover for lawmakers for future votes against pending police reform and voting rights legislation.
As is her wont, Professor Gordon-Reed counsels calm and patience: “I can’t let negative and inhuman people define this place for me,” she said. “If our ancestors could persevere, we can too!”
This column first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.