Exodus Road: Juneteenth and the Fight to End Slavery!
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.”
Just as we are finishing another Father’s Day weekend (Happy Father’s Day to all those dads out there!) another holiday is once again overlooked for a large portion of the American population. I am talking about Juneteenth (portmanteau for June 19th). Now, Juneteenth isn’t some obscure holiday; in most states around the country it is observed in many communities with parades, celebrations, barbecues, picnics, speeches, you know, all the fanfare that usually goes with other national holidays. Yet, in other communities it is met with a collective shrug or even disdain while others are just plain clueless what Juneteenth is or what it stands for. So if you don’t know what Juneteenth is, I forgive you and will give you a quick history lesson on what is, by far, the most underrated holiday in the country.
On September 22, 1862, while the United States was in the early stages of a brutal civil war, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, ending the institution of slavery effective January 1st the following year. However, the slave owning South ignored the doctrine and continued the business of owning slaves. Soon, the Union chipped away at the Confederacy and slaveholders moved away from the encroaching grip of Washington in an attempt to salvage their waning lifestyle. Many landed deep in the heart of Texas along with their slaves. Luckily, this bastion in Texas was short-lived. On April 9th, 1865 Robert Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant’s army, and with it the Confederacy was erased by the signatures of these important men (Tragically, Lincoln was shot just days later).
Yet in Texas, word of the War’s end reached ears slowly. In fact, the Trans-Mississippi army of the Confederacy was still fighting for a few weeks after, finally surrendering on June 2nd. Then seventeen days later on June 19th, Union Army General Gordon Granger led the army into the center of Galveston, Texas. From a balcony in the center of town he read “General Order #3” declaring the total emancipation of Texas’ 250,000 slaves. Slavery was over. But for our country it was the beginning of a new age. For the first time in 400 years, the descendants of the first Africans to be sold in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade could finally have the Constitution on their side. No longer were they property, bought and sold like livestock. They were free... in theory. With millions of slaves suddenly unshackled, a whole new litany of obstacles seemed to appear out of the ether. Who would protect them from marauding Rebels? Where were they to go? Where was their friends and family? For many, their kin had been torn from them like trees dug out by the roots. But the roots didn’t die and they were free to seek out those they loved, and begin life anew. But as we know by the likes of the 13th Amendment, Jim Crow laws, KKK, and the total mess of perpetuated racism which continues to this day by groups who deserve no name to be written by my fingers, tragedy didn’t end on Juneteenth. Just ask the mother of Emmett Till, or the friends and family of those free African-American citizens lynched, mutilated, and sold piece by piece by their fellow citizens. This is us and we can’t erase the deeds written in blood on our soil. There is much in our history which brought us to this point. There is much to be proud of, but there is much to learn from and grow. If we can’t learn from the past then what can we learn from? For much of the 19th Century, we as a nation, embarked on conflicts whose shockwaves are still sending tremors into the 21st Century.
Coinciding with the issues between the North and South United States, there was a second civil war being fought against the Native Americans which began when the first Europeans settled in the Western Hemisphere and ended with the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. It is an abominable chapter unresolved in our history. The Standing Rock testament we witnessed last year and still going on today, though mainstream media decided to limit the coverage and focus exclusively on Russia/Trump, Syria, and North Korea, is directly correlated to the wars fought against the people from these American lands. To put it bluntly, there are things we need to address as a nation. But this isn’t the story we will tell tonight. We will instead comes to grips with our past and celebrate us overcoming, as a nation, the most horrendous institution capitalism has yet devised--slavery. This needs to be something we celebrate together for it is our second Independence Day but really our first; this is when our country was truly united for the first time. So why is it that African-American communities celebrate Juneteenth and the rest of us just treat it like another day? This, too, folks, is another form of segregation, though much more subtle. This isn’t a holiday for one group. It is a holiday for all. If we can’t celebrate together, side-by-side, we may fall when our next major obstacle confronts us as a nation. For what is the purpose of holidays? To bind the bonds of our common history tighter; to not be afraid to look back in time; to acknowledge who we were, so we know who we are, so we may know who we will become.
For many Americans, slavery seems like a million years ago. Even for me it is difficult to imagine how things must have been before, during, and after all of these events which have led us to today. We can call it “evil” and “wicked” in hindsight but that dehumanizes those who fought to keep slavery alive. This is dangerous for two reasons. First, if we become the dehumanizers then we and the slaveholder are no different. Second, we must remember that most of these southerners who owned slaves were god-fearing people and had families. They cried when their daughters were married and laughed at dirty jokes. To them, slavery was the most natural relationship in the world. They even had biblical scripture on their side to back up their claim on the legitimacy of owning slaves, men or women, and how they should be beaten: “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.” (Exodus 21: 21-22) For these people it was acceptable and a right given by their God. The ideal of Manifest Destiny, the expansion of Americans west of the Mississippi, was definitely rooted in interpretations of biblical scripture, too. This probably helped them sleep better when they killed the indigenous people or stuck them on reservations. In their eyes, it always helped to have God on their side. But luckily in this country we had people with true wisdom and the fervor to espouse it. We had Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Henry Ward Beecher, and others to show us the light in the fight against slavery. So these are some reasons why we all should take the time and celebrate together Juneteenth. But the fight isn’t over. Slavery is still very real.
Just as capitalism has evolved into a global force, erasing borders and easing restrictions on the movement of goods and workers, so too has the rise of modern slavery been a dire crisis of our century made prevalent by modern economic machinations. With the influx of illegal workers flooding into our cities, human trafficking has created a whole new black market underneath the noses of many citizens turning a blind eye to the immigrant populations in their surrounding communities. Many of these new slaves are sex workers living in a shadow world at the mercy of the organizations who recruited them with promises of a better life. But with our drastically unequal global economy comes extreme poverty which creates conditions where a global network of slave traders can operate globally, mimicking the model set forth by multinational corporations. It is not only female sex workers but also child sex workers, forced laborers, and drug smugglers. And the United States, obviously, is the only country afflicted. It is here, there, and everywhere. Each region of the world plays its own part in the sale of human flesh. Just as slavery flourished with the capitalism of the 19th Century American south, it too has now found fertile conditions in which to reproduce and spread in this porous border 21st Century. If we have the desire to continue the same fight against human bondage (because it really is the same fight), petty discrepancies between nations, states, and neighbors need to be put aside. This isn’t the problem of the few, it is all our problem. If we think otherwise, we will walk the road of fools and face the consequences accordingly. And while it is the same fight, the rules have changed along with the tactics. In this, we need to trust each other more and share the same common desires to end modern day slavery wherever it breeds. If you have any suspicions about a business or something strange, call the authorities. Do your part. In my neighborhood a storefront posing as a massage parlor was busted for prostitution and human trafficking. It is real and it isn’t divided into North and South or Black and White. This is something we are all facing, especially the victims. If you can’t do your part or are sitting on the fence, you are just as guilty as any active participant. So let us stand together. This is why Juneteenth is a holiday for everyone and not just one group. Because when one group celebrates a triumph and the other ignores it what does this mean? It means we are a divided house and a divided house cannot stand. I vote for stand. So next year, let’s celebrate together.