Some of us read literally, others metaphorically, the claim made in the Holy Texts of the three Abrahamic faiths that humans, being the descendants of Adam and Eve, are born with a preordained proclivity to sin.
Either way we read the claim, the intended message in the texts is that, though humans, whether as individuals or collectively as a community, are original sinners, they are called to a struggle against sin, an endeavour that would liberate them from evil and enable them to make peace with their Creator.
Juneteenth Freedom Day, or Juneteenth for short, is a national holiday in the US that falls every year in June, a day when Americans are reminded of what is now widely considered their country’s own original sin — slavery, an enterprise whose legacy continues to resound around every corner of America’s social being.
It was on June 19, 1865, when Army General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, a coastal city in southeast Texas — the farthest corner of what had been the Confederacy — to announce publicly that slaves there, all 250,000 of them, were now, whether the people and the leaders of the formerly rebellious state liked or not, free. And that was in keeping with the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln in January, 1862.
'All slaves are free'
General Granger walked from the pier, where his ship had docked, all the way downtown. There he read from “Order Number 3”, which asserted that “all slaves are free, and this involves an absolute equality of personal rights to property between former masters and slaves”.
He was there effectively to force the slaveholders — at gunpoint were it necessary, backed as he was by troops with fixed bayonets — to free their slaves, slaves whom these slaveholders had used brute force against to continue enslaving them, despite the fact that the Emancipation Declaration had come into law close to three years earlier.
Since then, many states, including Texas as well as states like Oregon and Arizona with relatively tiny Black populations, have recognised Juneteenth as a state holiday, and on June 17, 2021, it was officially made a federal one.
If you image Juneteenth to be a sombre day of reflection on the tragic saga of a people who had made the transition from bondage to freedom, you would be mistaken. Juneteenth? A day with a catchy, fun name like that being a time of funereal brooding on the past? Forget about it!
Earlier this week, on Monday, Juneteenth was a holiday, a time of joy not grief, and Americans, Black and White, celebrated it by hanging out at backyard barbecues and attending Gospel concerts, as by showing up at Miss Juneteenth pageants and — the mother of all events — at CNN’s inaugural “Juneteenth: A Global Celebration for Freedom”, a concert that had its roaring start on Sunday night at the Hollywood Bowl (the amphitheatre in the Hollywood Hills neighbourhood of Los Angeles, considered one of the best music venues in America) where several Black legends performed, including Gospel star Yolanda Adams, who brought the audience to their feet when she opened with an emotive rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, dubbed by many the Black National Anthem.
All well and good. But to some of us, in particular those who earn their living not so much reporting the news as commenting on it, Juneteenth is a time to reflect on why race relations in the US, after all these years, have remained toxic — or at the least unresolved — to this day, as evidenced by countless events that remind us of the enduring presence of this phenomenon.
Muffled racism in society
And these events stretch all the way from the time in 1955 when Emmet Till, a 14-year-old Black boy who was abducted, tortured and lynched in a town called Money in Mississippi after being accused of flirtingly whistling at a White woman he encountered there in a grocery store; to the time in 1963 when George Wallace — a four-term governor of Alabama with presidential aspirations who had tapped, much as half a century later Donald Trump was to tap, into a populist current of deep grievance and muffled racism in society — stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama to block the arrival of Black students, all the while hollering, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”; and finally to the time in 2021 when George Floyd was murdered, for murdered he was, by a policeman for trying to pass off a counterfeit $20 bill in a supermarket.
Why have all this persisted? And why have the wellsprings of racism not already run dry in American culture?
What better place to look, albeit incongruously, for an answer than in the inherent contradictions found in the American Declaration of Independence, a document that for roughly three and a half centuries had inspired people engaged in freedom struggles around the world — including the people of Vietnam, whose first president, Ho Chi Minh, appropriated that declaration’s preamble in 1945 to use as one for his country’s own declaration of independence.
Yet, it was that very preamble, paradoxically, that marred America’s early emergence as a republic and finally plunged it into civil war.
That was so because though the declaration stated, grandly, resonantly, perhaps even immortally, that “all men are created equal” with “unalienable rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, the Founding Father who composed it, Thomas Jefferson, did not, along with a vast number of Americans who then lived in the 15 colonies, have Black men in mind — not only because slaves were considered lower species of men but also because Jefferson was himself a slave owner.
Sadly, that sentiment, Emancipation Proclamation or no Emancipation Proclamation, Civil War or no Civil War, Reconstruction or no Reconstruction, Civil Rights movement or no Civil Rights movement, has lingered on and continues to resonate with folks everywhere in what is now the 50 states that today make up the American Republic
Sure, while Juneteenth Freedom Day is, as indeed it should be, a time to celebrate African American culture, there’s no reason why it should not also be a time to reflect on how, in the struggle by Black folks in America for equity, there are still many twists and turns to come before the saga approaches a denouement and still a long way to go before the final leg of the journey is said to have been taken.
Fawaz Turki is a noted thinker, academic and author based in Washington DC. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile