By Lydia Holt
You can’t talk about Juneteenth without first talking about the Emancipation Proclamation. Abraham Lincoln was primarily looking to “stick it” to the South by signing this document. It proclaimed all slaves in the rebelling states free. However, if you were a slave in Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware (Union states) and Tennessee or any of a number of exempt counties and cities, you were sure out of luck until the abolishment of slavery with the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution on December 18, 1865. Of course most of the slaves in Texas didn’t know any of this had been going on until good old Union General Gordon Granger came to Galveston, Texas, and read out loud General Order Number 3 on June 19, 1865, informing the slaves of Texas that they were free. And so Juneteenth was born.
There’s a scene from the film version of The Color Purple (no, not the “You told Harpo to beat me!” scene, but another) that I think of every Juneteenth. Shug Avery is visiting Celie and Mister and sees her father’s carriage coming down the road. She runs out to the fence separating the yard from the dirt road, holding up her left hand now resplendent with a wedding band, and yells, “I’s married now! I say I’s married now!” Her father whips the horses into a gallop, rushing past his daughter, a scowl of disapproval on his face. Being a Texan, I like to call my family on Juneteenth, and when I call my big sister, I cheerfully say, “I say we’s free now!”
Just as Shug imagined she would be legitimized, in her father’s eyes, by becoming a married woman, my ancestors believed emancipation would lead to their recognition as full-fledged citizens. It did not. We, as black Americans, have certainly been disheartened by the disapproving scowl of white supremacy embodied by the planters, the overseers and Jim Crow, but we carry on. The way to full-fledged citizenship has been paved for me by Freedom Riders, marchers on Washington, and my great-grandmother refusing to leave the ventilated, whites-only waiting room of a train station on a sweltering hot Texas day. (Luckily, the train arrived before the police did.) It is because of them that I can call my sister and half-jokingly say, “I say we’s free now!” and it be a truer statement than ever before.
Growing up, we never did anything special on Juneteenth. No red soda water, no purple drink, no barbecue in the park, no parade. My mother told me that when her father was working at the cottonseed oil refinery, back in the early 20th century, the workers didn’t get the Fourth of July off. Since most of the workers were black, the refinery owner decided to give the workers Juneteenth off instead. The Fourth of July is a celebration of a free and independent country. Juneteenth is the celebration of this free and independent country allowing black people on the freedom train. Yes, we were confined to the back, but at least we were on the train, instead of running on the human-sized hamster wheels that power the train. Sure, it took 89 years (from the Declaration of Independence to the Emancipation Proclamation), but “We’s free now!”
Now we’re legitimate members of American society, free to openly participate in its democracy and yet many of us are reluctant to do so. We think it doesn’t really matter or our voices won’t be heard. I must admit that I too feel this way sometimes. The only time that I ever felt like my vote was really making a difference was during the 2008 presidential election. I stood in line with hundreds of people just before 6 o’clock in the morning, anxious to cast my vote for Barack Obama. I thought I was getting to the polls early, but when I neared the middle school that was my polling station, I found the line already winding out of the building and onto the sidewalk. Once I was in line, it began to grow down the sidewalk and snake its way around the corner. There was a buzz of excitement in the air. People whipped out their phones, chatting and texting excitedly. When a middle-aged black woman strode out of the building and announced she had been the first to cast her vote, a cheer went up from the line of eager voters.
The next election day was not nearly as exciting. I wasn’t helping make history; I was just voting for the same old people who were part of the same old political machine. It’s on those kinds of election days that I have to remember Juneteenth and the struggle of the civil rights movement. I have the luxury of grumbling about getting up early to get to the polls and am thankful for it.
I still have yet to go to a Juneteenth parade or picnic or any other formal celebration, but I’ve often pondered purchasing a copy of “Unchained Memories: Readings From the Slave Narratives” (HBO/Library of Congress) as well as some documentaries on the civil rights movement. I’ll show them to my two sons when they’re old enough to understand and when they’re being moody, obnoxious teenagers. I will sit them down and make them watch, listen, and see what their lives could have been like. I will remind them and I will remind myself that we have much to be grateful for.
“I say we’s free now!” So what shall we do with this freedom? I say, all that we can to preserve freedom and continue to fight for equality for all.