On Juneteenth

In size and length, this relatively small book encompasses a major historical event, Juneteenth. Annette Gordon-Reed (historian, lawyer, law professor, multi-award-winning writer and native-born Texan) has written a collection of essays based on personal remembrances and history. No reader should be misled to think that this book will provide a quick overview of what is now a federal holiday. If anything, this distillation of history should send many of us to do further research and reading.

January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which according to the United States National Archives states, “The proclamation declared "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free.” In Texas this was disregarded until two years later on June 19, 1985, African Americans owned as slaves were told that slavery had ended. This day came to be known as Juneteenth and since has been widely celebrated in Texas. In a preface, six chapters and a coda, Gordon-Reed speaks to us, not only as a historian, but as a native Texan, a Black woman with familial roots going back to the 1820s and 1860s, and writes compellingly about people's behavior, their motivations for initiatives, the cause and effect of actions taken, what this meant to Black Americans and others over the centuries, and provides historical analysis for why Juneteenth is an important day to be celebrated.

The actions taken by countries and various peoples (present, past, and ancient times) are presented and scrutinized. With precision, Gordon-Reed mines deep into history, and writes about who did what to whom and why. More than connecting dots, this examination looks like an evidence board, with strings woven from one point to another, crossed over and under. As a historian, she states: “Significantly, my wide-ranging approach to Juneteenth reveals that behind all the broad stereotypes about Texas is a story of Indians, settler colonialists, Hispanic culture in North America, slavery, race, and immigration. It is the American story, told from this most American place.”

When she was in the third-grade Annette Gordon-Reed started reading about Thomas Jefferson. Her interest in him centered around two conflicting ideas. She loved books and so did he, but she was troubled by his owning slaves and his expressed thoughts about who they were as people. As an adult she has written about him based on extensive research.  When asked whether she “likes” him, she countered that “like” is not quite the word, but she is “fascinated” with him. Not all historical events are glorious and innately commendable, but history is fascinating and demands examination and reflection. 

Taking classes with Professor Annette Gordon-Reed must be challenging, eye-opening, stimulating and this book provides a mere suggestion of that experience.  I have read the book once, very slowly and my library copy has so many small post-its it looks like a book that has sprouted petals.

The other books by Annette Gordon-Reed owned by the Los Angeles Public Library can be found here. There is a resource page devoted to Juneteenth. Adult, teen and children's books, emedia and other materials about Juneteenth can be found here. The Academy of American Poets selected three poems in commemoration of Juneteenth.