Like many, I was delighted when President Biden yesterday signed legislation making Juneteenth a federal holiday. June 19th has long marked the day in 1865 when Union troops rode into Texas with the news that “all slaves were free.” Months later the 13th amendment to the Constitution solidified the abolition of slavery in the United States. As Vice-President Kamala Harris noted, national holidays “are days when we as a nation have decided to stop and take stock, and often to acknowledge our history.”
Lately, there has been an angry debate about how to best acknowledge our history. As Matt Karp has recently argued:
American conservatives, traditionally attracted to history as an exercise in patrimonial devotion, have in the time of Trump abandoned many of their older pieties, instead oscillating between incoherence and outright nihilism. Liberals, meanwhile, seem to expect more from the past than ever before. Leaving behind the End of History, we have arrived at something like History as End.
Debate is good; censorship is not. Attempts by legislatures to outlaw historical perspectives on race and forbid teaching about the active legacies of inequality in this country are shameful efforts to cut off discussions about who we are and who we have been. As the historian Annette Gordon-Reed says in her recent On Juneteenth “history is always being revised, as new information comes to light and when different people see known documents and have their own responses to them, shaped by their individual experiences.”
So, let us celebrate a holiday commemorating the aspiration to emancipation even as we recognize that the work for freedom goes on. “The attempt to recognize and grapple with the humanity and, thus, the fallibility of people in the past — and present — must be made,” Gordon-Reed writes. “That is the stuff of history, too.” Poet Kevin Young, director the National Museum of African American History and Culture, puts it this way: “When we know and accept the unvarnished truth — in all of its complexity, conflict and context — it can change how we view things, including ourselves.”
In Middletown, there is a Juneteenth festival in Veteran’s Memorial Park from 1 to 6 p.m. Wherever we celebrate, let us continue to work for positive change in the world and in ourselves.