On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed

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A memoir by the eminent scholar who wrote so impressively about the Hemings family of Monticello is not to be missed. The importance of Juneteenth made it especially appealing to me because a beloved professor I knew organized a Juneteenth celebration every year at our local community college.

Gordon-Reed admits to having felt some resentment when celebrations of Juneteenth outside Texas began to happen; her feeling as a Texan that this belonged to the people of Black people of Texas has now given way to enjoying a more national celebration. The dreams of a Texas cotton-based slave economy ended 20 years after Texas became a state when Confederate forces were defeated. It was two years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after Lee surrendered that US general Granger proclaimed the end of the Confederate fighting in Texas on June 19, 1865.

Perhaps the most poignant part of this book for me is the passage about her great-grandmother who lived until Gordon-Reed was 10. She regrets not learning more about her life in Texas during the last two decades of the 19th century and into the twentieth. She goes on,

And what she could have told me about the things she learned from her mother, who had been born in Mississippi, and likely came to Texas some time in the 1860s! Her mother’s father, who was of English extraction, owned her and her mother. Either before or after they arrived in Texas, he freed her when she was very young, possibly still an infant. I’ve grown up to be a historian of slavery, studying the lives of other families through their family stories. I would have love to have learned more from my great-grandmother about my own family’s experiences.

In another passage, she says,

Being a historian trying to think and write effectively about the American founding, a period in which Black people were living under oppression at the hands of people who did some other things I admire, requires a degree of detachment. I realize that others may take a different tack. Thinking of past events, and people who lived long ago, and observing the process of change over time satisfies my deep interest in the past on its own terms, though I am also interested in the legacies of the past.

This detachment and ability to clearly see the people who benefitted from the evil of slavery is expressed several times throughout the book. I imagine that a person who studied the Hemings family and Jefferson has had to work hard to cultivate that detachment.

In writing about Texas history and her connection to it,  she writes about a movie that folks in her part of Texas identified with. Billy Jack came out in 1971 and was about a half-Native American, half-White man who commits violence to stand up for the hippies against the small town people. I was surprised at this movie being a touchstone; having recently seen the 1970 movie Little Big Man again, I found it a much more interesting cultural icon. Then Mr. Booklog told me that his history professor described Billy Jack as a “cult film among 7th graders.” Gordon-Reed was born in 1958.

I love the book for all the personal memories of growing up in Texas, a place that truly does have a complex history. She speaks of the traditional celebration of Juneteenth which in her family grew to include making countless tamales. She says, “This ritual was fitting, and so very Texan. People of African descent, and to be honest, of some European descent, celebrating the end of slavery in Texas with dishes learned in slavery and a dish favored by Mesoamericans Indians that connected Texas to its Mexican past; so much Texas history brought together for this one special day.”

Annette Gordon-Reed, On Juneteenth, Liveright Publishing, 2021, 148 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.

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