Why would all the fireworks be saved for next month? Let’s celebrate today. It wasn’t often that June 16 fell on Father’s Day, and it had only been a few days since Flag Day. The first day of summer is Tuesday. The stars, or at least the holidays, are aligning.
And what better way to celebrate than with food! It’s the all-American way. Thanksgiving is turkey and all the trimmings. There is chocolate on Valentine’s Day. On Easter Sunday we eat ham and Mama’s potato salad. And on Opening Day (another all-American holiday), there are hot dogs at the ballpark.
Today we suggest everything that will keep you away from a hot indoor stove. How about an ice overload? Let’s make this a new tradition.
This year Juneteenth will be a little freer than last year. The nation is emerging from the sickening doldrums, which bodes well for June 16th. Someone says go, do, be. make a living. You are now free.
Covid-19 has kept us all away for so long. And while still not defeated, many of us are vaccinated and no longer afraid. This Juneteenth will surely beat the last Juneteenth and the one before it. This year it’s baseball (Hogs on TV!) and neighborhood cookouts and pool parties and normalcy. We won’t wait until July 4th. Finally free, indeed.
That means finally free!
A holiday requires more than an official proclamation; it needs a story. Like Easter and The Story. Or Labor Day and the triangle shirtwaist fire. Or Veterans Day and the Frozen Chosin.
Fortunately, today’s holiday also has an original narrative.
Just as freedom came to the slaves of the American South, Juneteenth has spread slowly and unevenly, moving in fits and starts. Just as jazz, another great American invention with roots in African-American heritage, came up the river from New Orleans, Juneteenth moved like a wave from Galveston, Texas.
There the Union commander landed on June 19, 1865, with the news that the war was over and, oh yes, the slaves had been freed – two and a half years earlier. But in 1865 there was no Internet, nor was there much incentive for slave owners to blast the news.
There had been rumors of freedom, but then again, there had always been rumors of freedom. Since the Israelites in Egypt. Who could believe the words of some poor South Texas soul who might have heard someone in uniform ranting? You get the feeling that even weeks and months, maybe years, of being free, some people still woke up at night thinking it wasn’t really true, just a happy dream.
No wonder Juneteenth has been slow to catch on over the years. The end of slavery on this continent did not come on a specific date amid thunder and lightning; no date set in stone, or at least in ink like the Fourth of July. Instead, the wheels of emancipation grind slowly and extremely finely. Some slaves were freed immediately, others were not. Some have heard of it, some have not. Some believed it, some didn’t.
Emancipation was more of a secular legal process than a voice from heaven proclaiming liberty across the country. Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation was more an exercise of the Commander-in-Chief’s wartime powers than a grand declaration that all men are created equal.
How strange, too, that Abraham Lincoln, who contributed two almost biblical messages to American history, the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural, should have written an Emancipation Proclamation that has all the romance of a real estate deed and not a single moving line.
The Great Emancipator, as he always was, had become the cautious advocate. He was careful to proclaim freedom only in the part of the country where he was certain he could legally but not practically: the rebellious states. He used emancipation as a weapon of war, aware that it could backfire but also hoping that soon enough it would spell the end of slavery across the country.
It was all so vague, including the dates. Which explains why Juneteenth needs to fill an emotional vacuum.
This year, however, June 16 takes on a special meaning. Sort of like thanksgiving after big harrowing events when perspective comes and we thank him for protecting us. Sort of like the first Valentine’s Day when you realize you’re in love. Today we have even more reason to celebrate.
A pandemic is nearing its end. We can talk about other things now, which we certainly do. The virus is pushed off the front pages by international summits and inflation and government spending and border security and… policing and racial segregation and how to deal with a nation’s past.
And even how to remember it. Lest we forget, slavery was the worst sin this nation has ever inflicted on its heritage and people. But not every American participated in what a president named Lincoln called this horrid “peculiar institution.”
As much as some current academics would like to rewrite the history of this country, the fact remains that most Americans abhorred slavery from the very beginning. And many Americans died in the war to get rid of it.
We should celebrate all the efforts of the abolitionists, the Underground Railroad, the intellectuals, the church, certain newspaper publishers, the politicians who put their careers (and more) on the line, and all those who worked to make Juneteenth a success . It certainly didn’t come fast enough.
But while we study this sin – like medical students examining a cancer – let’s keep the historical context. And realize that slavery was horrible enough without having to make things up from scratch, like claiming the Revolutionary War was fought to keep it up. We should be able to celebrate June 16th in its own right, as a non-fiction chronicle, without distortion. It would help to read speeches by a man named Abraham Lincoln in the 1850s.
Remember when civil rights were someone else’s business? Now it seems to belong to everyone. Within a few years, June 16, too, transformed itself from a narrow-minded, informal, almost unknown holiday into a nationally accepted holiday.
Here’s how we do it in America: we take other people’s holidays and make them our own. On St. Patrick’s Day, all Americans are Irish. And which American refuses a beer at the Oktoberfest?
June 16 connects us all, and not just when we eat. With more important things, like quintessentially American ideals like freedom and independence. And freedom. And a constitutional state that offers this freedom. And a constitution, including amendments, governing that freedom.
Let us also give thanks today for the Civil War Amendments, as they are now known, for unhandcuffing us and freeing us. And for all the people who argued for her, who fought for her, who voted for her – even before it became popular.
Juneteenth not only has a great past, but also a great future. Like freedom itself, everything depends on what we make of it.