The esteemed storyteller Donna Washington returned to the Levy Lecture Series on June 8 to explain the history of Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating freedom and marking the end of slavery. Over the past year, the cumulative effects of the Black Lives Matter movement, George Floyd’s murder by Derek Chauvin, and the pandemic have contributed to a heightened awareness of the meaning and history of Juneteenth beyond “just” African American families.
The holiday originated in Texas on June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and read the proclamation written in 1863, more than two-and-a-half years earlier, by President Abraham Lincoln that declared all slaves were free. The proclamation and freedom it conveyed was a cause for celebration by enslaved African Americans, but it left both the enslaved and the slavers with more questions than answers about the implementation and timetable of these new freedoms.
To illustrate just how confusing the situation was, Ms. Washington told the story of “The Peaceful Kingdom” and the philosophy of plenty. The philosophy of plenty essentially says that if I have something that you need, and I can spare it, then I must give it to you, otherwise I am responsible for any trouble that befalls you as a result of you not having it. The Peaceful Kingdom is a tale of greed, megalomania, and naivete among a group of animals. Ms. Washington’s rich tone and flair for dramatic voices brought the characters and their personalities to life. The message of the story is as simple as it is obvious: each character had a different idea of what was happening and how they should respond.
It was much the same on June 20, 1865, the day after General Granger read the proclamation. The formerly enslaved people believed that now that they were free, they were as American as their belated owners. They reveled in the options before them. Yet this idea of, as Ms. Washington describes it, “equal footing,” was only embraced by those formerly enslaved. To the bereft slave owners, who believed the formerly enslaved were lesser human beings, not only incapable of looking after themselves, but not smart enough to take care of themselves, slavery provided structure as well as free labor.
The proclamation read that day by General Granger, in short, reconfigured the South. Many of the formerly enslaved were highly skilled craftsmen, both entrusted and relied on to deliver exceptional quality goods and services. Now these same people were employees with a desired skill, enabling them to be paid well for their services and to choose for whom they worked.
There is an obvious disconnect between those slave owners who believed their human chattel were not capable of taking care of themselves and those who relied on skilled slave labor to design their homes, take care of their children, and cook for their families. Cherry picking which “facts” to believe and which ones to overlook is consistent with a twisted ideology not based on logic.
From 1865 until 1897, there was a Renaissance period among free and newly freed African Americans. Education flourished, businesses thrived, and families began to accumulate wealth and property. In 1870, just five years after Juneteenth, Joseph Rainey, a former slave, was the first person of color elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (R-SC). But by 1897, Jim Crow laws, which restricted and denied access to African Americans trying to vote, were widespread. The similarities to today’s political environment were glaringly apparent to both the speaker and those in the audience.
Ms. Washington shared a sobering personal story that crystallized both the evil of racism and the obliviousness of those perfectly nice people making the racist remarks. After her emotional remarks, an audience member asked her if she was optimistic about the state of race relations in the U.S. She said she is optimistic. She does not believe there is more racism now – it has always been there – but now practically everyone has a cell phone camera, so the world can see what Black people have always experienced. “Racism is not a Black people problem. Racism is a White people problem,” she stated.
She summarized the meaning of Juneteenth eloquently.
“So why do we celebrate Juneteenth? We are celebrating the promise that things can get better. But we’re also celebrating the fact that we have the potential to get things better by the work we do, that the work of our hands matters, that us being Americans matters, that choices that we get to make can matter even though there are states today that are working hard to suppress the vote. Even in the face of that, we can make choices and we can choose our own fate. So what does it mean to be free? It means to be responsible. It means to make the world you want to live in look like the world you want to live in. That’s why we celebrate Juneteenth. The sky is the limit and we will keep pushing.”
A Zoom audience member, Marlene Mitchel, commented afterward that, “Everyone should see her program.” Davida Solomon enthused, “Donna Washington is a star…..what a pleasure it is to hear one of her lectures.” Interested readers may do so as well; go to the Levy Senior Center Foundation YouTube channel.
By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.