Juneteenth and the Weight of Slavery

I246 years. Nearly two and a half centuries. That is how long enslavement lasted in what is now the United States of America. Twelve generations of enslavement on this soil. Twelve generations of human beings who were each condemned to work for the right to live another day. This came to be my distillation of what slavery was, as I worked to try to quantify the magnitude of the damage done by slavery in America: Twelve generations of mothers and fathers and children born with no hope of seeing freedom in the Land of the Free, no visible ceiling to the lineage of suffering. How many “greats” would we have to add to the word “grandparent” to begin to comprehend how long slavery lasted on this soil? It was not until two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and months after the end of the Civil War that, on June 19, 1865, word finally reached the last of the enslaved Americans that “all slaves are free.” Union General Gordon Granger read these words, directed toward recalcitrant slaveholders, from the balcony of the former Confederate Army headquarters in Galveston, Texas. The newly liberated people would come to call this day Juneteenth.Here, survivors of slavery soberly observe Juneteenth in their hats, canes and bonnets in Austin, TX, 1900. In the early years, the newly freed people and their descendants took pains to dress up for Juneteenth, as laws had forbidden slaves from dressing “above their station,” above their caste. Today, as we commemorate Juneteenth, let us remember that slavery was not merely a sad, dark chapter in our country’s history, but the foundation of the country’s social, political and economic order, and that it lasted for nearly a quarter of a millennium.— Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents www.isabelwilkerson.com

This passage from Isabel Wilkerson’s facebook account captures a dimension of Juneteenth celebration that is worth further comment. In Wilkerson’s account, the meaning of Juneteenth is not captured entirely or even primarily by the liberation from slavery or even the destruction of the slave system as a result of the Civil War.

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Instead, it’s the weight of slavery itself: the duration across “twelve generations,” the vulnerability of not knowing whether an enslaved person would live or die at any day, the despair of not being able to hope for freedom. And that’s not to mention the horrors of the middle passage, the spectacle of the coffles of black men and women being force marched to the plantations of the South, the grief of family separation, the trauma of being tortured, whipped, raped, and seeing these cruelties inflicted on mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, and everyone else within the range of an enslaved person’s acquaintance. Isabel Wilkerson writes that slavery was “the foundation of the country’s social, political and economic order” and it follows that Juneteenth will be fundamental to this country’s self-understanding because slavery itself was the “foundation” of our national existence.

By commemorating the end of slavery, the Juneteeenth celebration further clarifies the weight of slavery on black Americans as a focus of America’s historical heritage and national identity. Indeed, it’s not hard to see that weight becoming an element in other national celebrations as well.