Celebrating Juneteenth with Professor Sandy Alexandre

Published on: June 17, 2021

In honor of Juneteenth, this issue of the OVC-CDEI newsletter will highlight resources and events related to this holiday. To start, we are pleased to share an essay by associate professor of literature Sandy Alexandre, a meditation on why the historical event commemorated by Juneteenth should call ever more Americans to celebrate. Many thanks to Prof. Alexandre for contributing to this newsletter.

On June nineteenth, 1865 in Galveston, Texas, a little over two whole years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Major General Gordon Granger (with the occupying forces of the Union Army in tow) addressed the people of Texas by reading aloud Military Order No. 3—a paragraph of text that proclaimed, in no uncertain terms, that “all slaves are free.” Indeed, if you read the Order, you’ll find that, in all of its officialese, no passage in it is as crystal clear as those four words; if the Order could be said to have a tl;dr moment, then those four words would definitely be it. By the power vested in him by the Union Army, Granger pronounced that emancipation from slavery needed to be, at once, de jure (legally recognized) and de facto (socially practiced) in Texas. This news is certainly reason enough to celebrate, but a two-year-long delay on such important, life-changing news seems unconscionable! Had Texas just been too stubborn a Confederate State to adhere to the proclamation issued by the nation’s president? Did Texas prefer to wait out the Civil War before it would ever concede that Lincoln’s proclamation was perhaps worthy of its attention after all? Or was Texas just too geographically remote a slave state to get the news in time? While history books may have answers to these questions, they don’t have any set answers to the question of what the annual celebration of June nineteenth means, especially to Black Americans. Freedom is so sacred, precious, and personal, after all. Whether enslaved Texans received the Order as Happy-Belated-Emancipation wishes or as an Emancipation Proclamation custom-tailored specially for Texas, the message of the Order was decidedly triumphant for those whom slavery had enslaved or doomed to wageless work even as freedpersons: On that day, Black people had a very good and official reason to celebrate out loud. They would continue to celebrate that day every year, referring to it, alternately, as Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, and Liberation Day. The most mnemonic of those endearing names for that date was, of course, Juneteenth. Juneteenth—a portmanteau of June and nineteenth—is a regional holiday turned almost national. Currently, it’s not quite a national holiday, because all but three states recognize it as an official holiday.

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