Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed offers a historical primer on the conditions that made Juneteenth a holiday and its importance to the nation.
This past summer, celebrating Juneteenth at home in Texas made me feel as though I was at the center of the world. I was used to spending the holiday, which celebrates the announcement of the end of legal slavery in Texas, gathering with my church in Houston, being chastised by my mother to fix her a plate, and dancing in the company of people who’d known me since my christening. I never bothered explaining to folks from college what the holiday was—it was our thing. After the police murder of Houston’s own George Floyd, who grew up in the Third Ward, where my church is, Juneteenth was catapulted into the national consciousness and Texas along with it. I shouldn’t be surprised; this nation rarely celebrates the bounty and abundance of Black life, save for when Black people are thrust into a position of precarity.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Texas native Annette Gordon-Reed offers a historical primer on the conditions that made Juneteenth a holiday and its importance to the nation. In six short essays, she combines first-person storytelling about her family in Texas, whose roots date back to the early 19th century, alongside historical narrative and analysis. Her purpose is clear: “The essays that follow do not strive to present a chronological narrative of the place where Juneteenth was born. They are, instead, designed to provide a context for an event that has become increasingly important in the life of the American nation.” The slim 140-page volume is almost like a pocket constitution, and I could see it having a life in classrooms as well as in the hands of lay readers of history.
As this summer showed us, Texas has long claimed a strange place in the history of the United States. Since the years before the Civil War, the South has held the racial anxieties of the entire country, serving as a convenient scapegoat for white Northern liberals to exonerate themselves of blame for the country’s racist origins. “The history of Juneteenth,” Gordon-Reed writes, “shows that Texas, more than any state in the Union, has always embodied nearly every major aspect of the United States of America. That fact has been obscured by broad caricatures of the state and its people, caricatures that Texans themselves helped to create and helped make the state seem exotic, almost foreign to the rest of the Union.”
For anyone who learned history in Texas classrooms, On Juneteenth provides a compelling counter-narrative to familiar stories of the state’s origins. She dedicates an entire essay to deconstructing the Alamo as a founding symbol of Texas’ signature defiance. To the well-worn story of Colonel Travis’ line in the sand, she adds: “There were other enslaved people in the Alamo. None of these people had the unfettered choice to remain on the other side of Travis’s line in the sand.” She also offers a corrective to prevailing national narratives about the founding of the colonies at Plymouth and Jamestown. Gordon-Reed seeks to expand the conversation started by the New York Times’ The 1619 Project, a necessary reconsideration of the founding of the United States through the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in 1619. Gordon-Reed asks: Why does our understanding of the founding of the U.S. start and end with British colonization? What of the enslaved Africans brought to Texas, to Florida, who were forced into the settler colonial project well before then?
Gordon-Reed, a professor at Harvard who specializes in the early American Republic, knows that correcting the historical record isn’t easy.She refuses simple answers. In “People of the Past and Present,” she addresses the white supremacist impulse of “firsting and lasting,” a term coined by historian Jean O’Brien, a citizen of the White Earth Ojibwe Nation, that captures the narrative impluse to document an area’s first settlers and “last” of Indigenous peoples and groups, as though Indigenous people are not currently present. “One thing that has changed greatly in Texas from my childhood up until now is the determination to bring people of color into the Texas narrative as much as possible,” Gordon-Reed writes. “The chief difficulty lies in how people of color can be fit into the legends and myths about Texas when the actual historical experiences of Indians, Blacks, and Mexicans wreak havoc with those legends and myths.” She offers a reconsideration of capital-H History by emphasizing family histories as valid and necessary sites of historical authority.
Gordon-Reed’s storytelling shines in the book’s second essay, “A Texas Town,” which documents her experience integrating her hometown’s elementary school. In Conroe, a bust of her face in a city park commemorates her participation. History taught in schools and written in books (and commemorated in busts) has a way of sealing the past off from the present. By combining history and memoir, Gordon-Reed reminds readers that the struggle is ongoing and that these events are in the recent past. She also complicates the one-size-fits-all portrayal of school integration as a net good: “The notion of ‘separate’ being inherently unequal didn’t take account of what it meant for Black students to have Black teachers, particularly at that precise moment in history,” Gordon-Reed writes. Black communities lost that connection during integration. “Strong bonds existed between teachers and students at Booker T. They were neighbors, relatives (in some cases), and fellow church members. The bonds forged in the classrooms were solidified outside the school, suffusing every aspect of the lives of students and teachers. The ‘classroom’ was everywhere, really.”
Who is On Juneteenth for? It didn’t feel like it was for me, perhaps because the history it articulates is one I’ve long known. As a college student, I’ve taken ethnic studies classes that taught me about how the nation is implicated in battles fought here in Texas, in the legacies of chattel slavery and Indigenous displacement. And I was born in New Orleans, a city whose rich layered history refutes the idea of the single story, as Texas so stubbornly insists. Perhaps it’s the prose, narrated with a historian’s precision that lends a strange distance to even the sections of memoir that I found so compelling, like when Gordon-Reed describes the experience of being observed by groups of visiting educators as a first grade student who were checking on integration’s progress.
I know Gordon-Reed loves Texas in the same way I do. In the books’ last pages, she names this love explicitly: “When asked, as I have been very often, to explain what I love about Texas, given all that I know of what has happened there—and is still happening there—the best response I can give is that this is where my first family and connections were … Texas is where my mother’s boundless dreams for me took flight.” Perhaps this book is for those who love Texas, who want to understand its complications in order to love it better. For those who want to know how we got to be here, celebrating on Juneteenth, thrust to the center of the world.