Juneteenth: Why Celebrate?

“By putting on their very best clothes, the black people were signaling they were free,” historian Jackie Jones relates. “It enraged white people. They hated to see black people dressed up because it turned their world upside down.” Sartorial display is woven into resistance and celebrations of the African American holiday Juneteenth.

Emancipation Day, Austin, Texas, 1900 (from Wikipedia)


Today marks the anniversary of the original  Juneteenth, a celebration marking the end of slavery. What began as a regional celebration in Galveston, Texas has grown to a national commemoration that people celebrate in a variety of ways. NPR’s Code Switch has been collecting stories of how people celebrate at the hashtag #WouldntBeJuneteenthWithout, but I there is a pall over the usual celebratory mood of this Juneteenth by recent events in Seattle, where Charleena Lyles was killed by police after she called them to report a burglary, and in Minnesota, where the police officer on trial for killing Philando Castile, was acquitted on all charges.

Indeed, after the ongoing police-murder of Black people, the celebration of Juneteenth and the struggle behind it, take on a renewed sense of urgency and poignancy. Why celebrate it at all? It wasn’t always a widely recognized holiday, and it was a struggle to get it recognized.

The Struggle to Make Juneteenth a State Holiday

Juneteenth hasn’t always been recognized as a holiday, and in the family I came from it was often scoffed at (lots of derision about the name of the holiday).  So the fact that Juneteenth is now an official state holiday in Texas and many other communities across the US, is significant and is only possible because of a political struggle waged by one Houston Democratic legislator, (former) state representative Al Edwards.  It seems impossible now to mention a black, Democratic state representative and not call to mind, Rep. Clementa Pinckney, gunned down while leading that Wednesday night service in Charleston.

Former Texas State Rep. Al Edwards

Former Texas State Rep. Al Edwards

Edwards was born in Houston in 1937, the sixth of sixteen children, and was first elected as a state representative in 1978 from Houston’s District 146, the area known as Alief. A year later, in 1979, Edwards authored and sponsored House Bill 1016, making June 19th (“Juneteenth”) a paid state holiday in Texas.

Everyone, it seemed, opposed the idea. In a recent interview about this bill, attorney Doug McLeod, a conservative Democratic representative from Galveston at the time said of Edwards, “He really had an uphill battle. He had opposition from the left and the right.” Mostly white conservative Democratic majority viewed the bill as a hard sell to their constituents and many of Edwards’ 14 fellow black legislators saw it as a diversion from securing a holiday for Martin Luther King.

House Bill 1016 appeared to be headed nowhere when Edwards, a Democrat who was new to the legislature, originally filed it. Eventually, he got McLeod to sign on to the bill and Bill Clayton, then speaker of the Texas legislature.

Then-Gov. Bill Clements, a Republican, declined to endorse the Juneteenth bill, but he agreed to sign it if passed. Through a series of negotiations and brokered deals over votes, Rep. Edwards eventually prevailed and got the bill through the legislature.  When the bill passed, white conservative opponents urged the governor not to sign the bill, but Clements kept his word and signed the bill on the Texas State Capitol steps. This prompted other states to follow suit. Now 43 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth in some way or another.

History and Struggle Behind Juneteenth

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, but people remained enslaved within the state of Texas.

This happened for two reasons.

First, Texas slave owners refused to release the people they were holding as slaves.  They basically just wouldn’t acknowledge that the Emancipation Proclamation or Lee’s surrender had happened or had any bearing on them (cf. “States Rights,”  see also Texas is a Whole Other Country).

Second, slave owners from neighboring states in the south looked on Texas as a haven for slavery, so they poured into Texas with an estimated 125,000-150,000* enslaved people  from surrounding Confederate states (*historians debate the precise number).

In a recent interview, Jackie Jones,a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.”The idea was Texas was so vast that the federal government would never be able to conquer it all. There is this view that if they want to hold onto their slaves, the best thing to do is get out of the South and go to Texas.”

This ended on June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston and again declared the end of the Civil War, with General Granger reading aloud a special decree that ordered the freeing of some 200,000 people still in bondage in Texas.

Today, some 43 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth in some way. This would not have been possible without the vision of Rep. Al Edwards and the struggle to make it a reality.

In times like these, what’s to celebrate?

With the official, legal end of chattel slavery — and the enforcement of that decree in Texas — there was much to celebrate in 1865. It was no longer legal for human beings to be sold on auction blocks as they had been. And, to be clear, the US didn’t just tolerate slavery as an economic system, it expanded and prospered on it.  The overturning of this dehumanizing system was a momentous victory for a multi-racial group of abolitionists who waged a decades long campaign to end slavery.

Reconstruction followed, creating new opportunities for African Americans who owned and profited from their own land and began to participate in local politics.

Most Americans remain confused about the period of Reconstruction, and many still subscribe toA false story of Reconstruction disseminated in popular culture through things like the film Birth of a Nation.  Although historians including Columbia University’s Eric Foner have shown the extraordinary political, economic, and legal gains of Reconstruction, as Gregory P. Downs notes at TPM.

One historian, C. Vann Woodward, has called the period of “the forgotten alternatives.” During the period between 1870 and 1900, there was some racial integration in housing and privately-owned facilities. Black people could travel on public transportation, vote and get elected, get jobs, including on police forces, and enjoy many public facilities.

But. the gains of Reconstruction were short-lived.

This “alternative” approach to race during Reconstruction ended when what Woodward calls the “strange career” of Jim Crow segregation, began — first by whites in the North, and expanded with a vengeance by Southern whites. Within thirty years of emancipation, laws were instituted that stripped African Americans of their rights, making celebrations like Juneteenth a distant memory. A prison-labor paradigm developed. White jail owners profited from the hard labor of their black inmates who were incarcerated for petty crimes like vagrancy, which carried long sentences. White landowners replaced chattel slavery with a deceptive practice called debt peonage, a new form of bondage continued for many blacks for decades. It wasn’t until 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Circular No. 3591 which strengthened the Anti-Peonage Law of 1867, making it a criminal offense.  Roosevelt launched a federal investigation, prosecuted guilty whites and effectively ended peonage in 1942.

So, why celebrate Juneteenth if white supremacy re-emerged with such a bloody return thirty short years later? Because celebration, commemoration and community are how we gain strength for the larger struggle.

Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name land co-executive producer of the documentary film by the same name, said this about Juneteenth:

“It’s important not to skip over the first part of true freedom. Public education as we know it today and the first property rights for women were instituted by African-American elected officials.”

Even as there is terrible news of continued police killing of Black people, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on other times, other struggles and other victories on this anniversary of Juneteenth.




On Kwanzaa

Today, I celebrated Kwanzaa with the folks at my church. There are conflicting takes on Kwanzaa in the blogosphere from black neo-cons who take issue with it and white lefties who are anxious to make fun of white right-wingers making fun of Kwanzaa.  One of the common critiques (from the left and the right) about Kwanzaa is that it’s a “made up holiday.”  Hey, guess what?  All holidays are made up… including Christmas.

More positive takes on the holiday include The Grio’s post that enlightens us about the five things you didn’t know about Kwanzaa (but should) (#3. Hip Hop played an instrumental role in Kwanzaa’s growth in the eighties and early nineties).  There’s also Prof. (Dumi) Lewis’ excellent piece “Quit Frontin on Kwanzaa” in which he schools us all on the seven principles of Kwanzaa and reminds us of the importance of  looking around “your family, your neighborhood, your nation, and tell me if we can afford to continue to not be self-reflective and work towards a better community?”

In a piece from The Root from last year about this time, Erin Evans wonders about the commercialization and lack of real observance makes me wonder where the celebration will be in a generation or two.  Evans ends with this reflection:

In 2003, NPR’s Farai Chideya canvassed Ladera Heights, a largely black area of Los Angeles, to find out if young folks were celebrating Kwanzaa.

“Ain’t that a Jewish holiday?” asked Jaleel Miller, one of the young people she interviewed.

I shook my head when I heard it, but I could also relate. The future of Kwanzaa is in shaky hands—mine included.

I have my own issues with Kwanzaa, and they mainly have to do with the legacy of the founder Maulana Karenga (nee Ron Everett), once a member of the US organization – a political rival to the Black Panthers.   While a leader of US (as in “us” not “them”), two leaders of the rival Black Panthers were gunned down in a parking lot at UCLA.  Karenga was not charged with these crimes but was rumored to have been involved.  What Karenga was charged, and convicted of, was a brutal attack on two women – Deborah Jones and Gail Davis.    In 1971, Karenga and two other men were convicted of felony assault and false imprisonment for torturing Jones and Davis who were involved in the US Organization.  An article in the Los Angeles Times described the testimony of one of the women: “Deborah Jones, who once was given the title of an African queen, said she and Gail Davis were whipped with an electrical cord and beaten with a karate baton after being ordered to remove their clothes. She testified that a hot soldering iron was placed in Miss Davis’ mouth and placed against Miss Davis’ face and that one of her own big toes was tightened in a vise. Karenga, head of US, also put detergent and running hoses in their mouths, she said.”

Contemplating all this today sent me to the academic literature to see if I could find anything that would give me some answers.  I came across a very good peer-reviewed article by scholar Elizabeth Peck, called “Kwanzaa: The Making of a Black Nationalist Tradition, 1966-1990” (Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 20, No. 4, Summer, 2001, pp. 3-28).    Pleck explores the discourse around Kwanzaa between its founding in 1966 and an artificial end point, 1990. Like all rituals, Pleck argues, Kwanzaa is a ritual that both reflects and is shaped by the discourses that surround it.

A key element in Pleck’s argument about Kwanzaa is that it is a ritual filled with ironies.   Here’s a paragraph from near the beginning:

“As a flexible ritual that changed, grew, and flourished over the years, the  history of Kwanzaa is replete with ironies. Born in part out of a critique of capitalism in the United States, the holiday owed much of its growing acceptance to refurbishing through consumerism. Originating among a black nationalist scornful of black “matriarchy,” Kwanzaa found its most eager enthusiasts among black women, who usually organized the feast in the home. Seen as an accessible ritual bound to appeal to the black masses, Kwanzaa was taken up mainly by the black middle class.  A ceremony intended to replicate a simple harvest festival, most Kwanzaa celebrations occurred among residents of large cities or suburbs. Created by an intellectual hostile to Christianity, Kwanzaa proved dynamic enough to be redefined as religious, secular, or both, and as fully compatible with Christianity. Stemming from a rejection of racial integration, the holiday-time Kwanzaa celebration at many public schools functioned as a sign of toleration for cultural difference. Seen as a ritual to develop a diasporic African identity, Kwanzaa became more appealing as it came to include many more elements of African American history and culture” (p.3).

Pleck traces the ebbs and flows of Kwanzaa’s popularity by examining the mentions of it in the black press.   Not surprisingly, much of the ritual’s popularity has followed the personal ups and downs of Karenga’s life.  While he was in prison for the crimes against Jones and Davis, Kwanzaa suffered what Pleck refers to as period of “duldrums.”   Pleck argues that the holiday “thus carried the weight of this specific incident,” as well as of Karenga’s fairly well-known attitudes toward black women in general.

Karenga in the 1960s believed that the proper role of black women was to be submissive to black men; he opposed equality between the sexes. In speeches between 1965 and 1967 he argued that “equality is false; it is the devil’s concept.” He said that the black husband had “any right that does not destroy the collective needs of the family” (p.11).

After his release from prison, there was a small but growing interest in the ritual. And, as Karenga transformed himself from radical political activist to professor and eventually chair of the African American Studies Department at Cal State Long Beach, the holiday’s popularity continued to rise.  Pleck also ties the rise in the ritual’s popularity with a growing black middle class and an increasing self-definition among middle class blacks as African American, and with an increasing desire to identify with African cultural roots.
Pleck notes that the black mainstream press discovered Kwanzaa in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The first article on Kwanzaa in the black mainstream press appeared in Essence in 1979, and seems to have been an act of self-promotion by a Bay Area nationalist, who had written a Kwanzaa manual.  But it was in the early 1980s that the ritual began to really emerge in the black mainstream media:

“The more significant date is 1983, when Ebony and Jet first published articles about Kwanzaa.  Black sororities began to invite speakers to show their members how to celebrate Kwanzaa. Cedric McClester’s handbook on the holiday, written in a more accessible style than Karenga’s … pamphlets, appeared in 1985. He developed a lengthier script for the Karamu. He also created the folk figure of Nia Umoja, a Kwanzaa “Santa” and teller of African tales, who brought gifts to children. Large national museums, New York City’s American Museum of Natural History (beginning in 1985) and the Smithsonian (beginning in 1988), staged Kwanzaa celebrations” (p.13).

These large institutions, most located near large, urban, black populations, Pleck argues, wanted to add programming that showed an interest in and demonstrated good will toward African Americans.

“Celebrations of Kwanzaa at many college campuses date from this period. Increased publicity about Kwanzaa on television, radio, and main stream newspapers encouraged the celebration, although many first learned about it from a friend. Some of those who celebrated Kwanzaa in public school or at a community center later came to practice it at home” (p.13).

Through the 1980s and 1990s while many black women, both in institutions such as college sororities and in private family homes, increasingly adopted Kwanzaa as a way of celebrating ancestral heritage and uniting family, at the same time Pleck notes that some black feminists, such as bell hooks, have remained critical:

In 1997, the feminist social critic bell hooks was interviewed in Essence and offered several reasons why she did not celebrate Kwanzaa. She began by noting her dislike for what she considered the rigid format of Kwanzaa and the Ngusa Saba. She also told the interviewer, “Another troubling thing about Kwanzaa is that you’re talking about patriarchal Black Nationalist men who decided they had to reinvent [these principles]. As if they didn’t already exist” (p.13).

And this is where I come back to with Kwanzaa. Is there a point to this ritual in a way that’s meaningful for me or is this, as hooks would have it, a celebration of patriarchal principles that already exists elsewhere in the culture?  Pleck argues that because black women took on most of the organizing work of Kwanzaa that they re-made the ritual and in so doing, “erased entirely Karenga’s initial ideas about the submissiveness of women” (p.20).    This was certainly what I saw today at my (queer), multi-racial church where black women led a transformed Kwanzaa celebration that highlighted diversity and the work of black women who did the work of organizing the civil rights movement, such as Ella Baker.   Honoring this chosen and diverse family, unity around social justice and a commitment to a faith that the world can be a better place are worth celebrating.

In Memoriam: John Hope Franklin (1915-2009)

The great U.S. historian, John Hope Franklin, died yesterday at a Duke University hospital. He was a pioneering scholar and civil rights leader. He did pathbreaking work as one of the leading scholars working on this history of African Americans and U.S. racial oppression, scholarship building on the earlier work of scholars like W. E. B. Du Bois. His most famous and widely influential book, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, was an essential text for many of us who have become researchers in this area and is still widely read and used in its numerous editions. Franklin was professor emeritus at Duke, which put out an obituary summarizing his great contributions to this country, to all Americans of all backgrounds.
This summary of his life is candid about the discrimination Duke inflicted on him, indeed as southern libraries and universities often did:

At the time From Slavery to Freedom was published, there were few scholars working in African-American history and the books that had been published were not highly regarded by academics. To write it, he first had to give himself a course in African-American history, then spend months struggling to complete the research in segregated libraries and archives – including Duke’s, where he could not use the bathroom.

Yet Franklin persevered:

Franklin worked on the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) case, joined protestors in a 1965 march led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Ala. and headed President Clinton’s 1997 national advisory board on race.

My only personal contact with Dr. Franklin was when he asked me to testify before President Clinton’s 1997 task force on race, at its stormy Denver, Colorado session. He was chair of the advisory board for this effort, called One America: The President’s Initiative on Race. As chair of that board, he was still strong as a civil rights leader, though somewhat frail in body. The Duke obituary adds this further recollection:

In January 2005, he spoke at Duke at the celebration of his 90th birthday, displaying the fire that motivated him throughout his long life. While others at the event talked about the past and reminisced about his accomplishments, Franklin focused squarely on the future. He described the event, held the same day as President George W. Bush’s second inauguration, as a “counter-inaugural” … He recounted some of the historical inequalities in the United States and recalled some of his own experiences with racism. He said, for example, that the evening before he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton, a woman at his club in Washington, D.C., asked him to get her coat. Around the same time, a man at a hotel handed Franklin his car keys and told him to get his car. “I patiently explained to him that I was a guest in the hotel, as I presumed he was, and I had no idea where his automobile was.

Even as a leading scholar and civil rights leader, well into his 80s, Franklin still faced the ugly reality of U.S. racism in his everyday life.

The grandson of a slave, Franklin’s work was informed by his first-hand experience with injustices of racism — not just in Rentiesville, Okla., the small black community where he was born on Jan. 2, 1915, but throughout his life. . . . The realities of racism hit Franklin at an early age. He has said he vividly remembers the humiliating experience of being put off the train with his mother because she refused to move to a segregated compartment for a six-mile trip to the next town. He was 6.

He survived the Tulsa race riot (actually a white pogrom in which at least 300 black citizens were killed by whites) of 1921. Unable to attend the Jim Crowed University of Oklahoma, he went to Fisk University, to study law but was convinced to study history by a white history professor there. That professor loaned him the money to begin study at Harvard, where he got his Ph.D. degree in 1941.

He began his career as an instructor at Fisk in 1936 and taught at St. Augustine’s and North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University), both historically black colleges. . . . Then in 1947, he took a post as professor at Howard University, where, in the early 1950s, he traveled from Washington to Thurgood Marshall’s law office to help prepare the brief that led to the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 1956 he became chairman of the all-white history department at Brooklyn College. Despite his position, he had to visit 35 real estate agents before he was able to buy a house for his young family and no New York bank would loan him the money. . . . He spent 16 years at the University of Chicago, coming to Duke in 1982. He retired from the history department in 1985, then spent seven years as professor of legal history at the Duke Law School.

The Duke obituary adds this summary of his extraordinary research work:

Franklin was a prolific writer, with books including The Emancipation Proclamation, The Militant South, The Free Negro in North Carolina, George Washington Williams: A Biography and A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North. He also has edited many works, including a book about his father called My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin, with his son, John Whittington Franklin. … He received more than 130 honorary degrees, and served as president of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the American Studies Association, the Southern Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association.

Recently Franklin wrote his Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin (2005) and you can hear an interview with him about it at this Duke site.

We will miss him greatly.

AMA Apologizes, Yet Racism in Medicine Continues

In the last few days, there has been a telling confluence of events related to racism in medicine. In the story that’s getting the most coverage from major news outlets and a few blogs, the American Medical Association (AMA) has issued an apology for more than a century of discriminatory policies toward black physicians, including those that effectively restricted membership in the AMA to whites only. The way the AMA did this in the 1890s was to restrict access so that the only physicians eligible for membership were those doctors who already belonged to a state or local medical society. The state and local medical societies were almost all racially restrictive, meaning only open to white membership. The AMA never took any action to challenge the racist practices of the state and local societies. So, the AMA could say they had a “race blind” policy, when in fact, they were complicit in the same racist exclusionary practices that ended in the same result: African-Americans were not allowed to become members in the AMA.

That’s the way they did it. The reason? Decrease competition for patients, and the revenue that patients represent. If you have any doubts about this, read Paul Starr’s compelling The Social Transformation of American Medicine (1982). And, an excellent companion to that book is Harriet Washington’s recent Medical Apartheid (2007).

And, the result? Quite simply, the racial discrimination by the AMA is part of:

“a litany of discriminatory practices that have had a devastating effect on the health of African-Americans,”

according to Dr. Nelson L. Adams, president of the National Medical Association (NMA). The NMA is an African-American physician group founded in 1895 when black physicians were excluded from the AMA. In his written statement, Dr. Adams goes on to commend the AMA for their “courageous step” and encourages us all to “seize this opportunity to move forward to correct these injustices.” It’s a noble move on Dr. Adams’ part, unfortunately, these injustices are do not exist exclusively in the distant past.

UPDATED (5:20pmEST): For example, in New Jersey just two days ago, three EMS workers were fired by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey over a racist incident. The university’s president said that the three were terminated after cell phone camera images surfaced of paramedic trainees at University Hospital in Newark garbed in white sheets resembling Ku Klux Klan robes (photo from here).  On a local news report in the area, they interviewed a person on the street and got their reaction to this, and it reminded me of some of the accounts in Living with Racism (Feagin and Sykes, 1993).  The man, who was black (and yes that’s relevant to this story), said something along the lines of: “If this is what they got caught doing, you know that there’s other stuff going on that they didn’t get caught doing!” This is the kind of everyday racism that black people live with in this country (and elsewhere).  The harm here is not only in this incident, it’s also in the wondering about “what else” is happening in the back stage of white people’s behavior.   And, for their part, white people engage in this sort of behavior and then call black people “paranoid.”     What’s interesting too, here, is the language.  How is this ‘hazing” – a ritual following which someone is inducted into a group, club or state of being?  I don’t think that applies here.  The lead-in to the local news report I heard also referred to this incident as “horrifying for the memories it evokes of another time.”  It seems to me that such an analysis misses the harm of such acts in the present.    Of course, this kind of ongoing racism has serious health consequences for in the present tense; and, indeed, the white EMS workers in this incident are working and making emergency calls in a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood.  So much for our putatively “post-racial” society.