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Celebrating Juneteenth Q & A with Sybil Roberts Williams

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smiling professor
CAS performing arts professor Sybil Roberts Williams

What do you know about Juneteenth? It is a holiday that some African Americans celebrate with barbecues and parades. But Juneteenth, the annual celebration of emancipation from slavery in the United States, also is seen as the beginning of the African American experience as citizens of this country—and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.  

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, but the news that all African American slaves in the Confederacy had been freed did not reach those held in slavery in then-remote Texas until June 19, 1865. Juneteenth, coming after the fall of Richmond on April 2, after Lee’s formal surrender at Appomattox on April 9, and after the surrender of the Army Trans-Mississippi out on the frontier on June 2, certainly was a long time coming. 

Lincoln, after all, had issued the proclamation as a political move to preserve the Union rather than to abolish slavery, despite his personal anti-slavery beliefs. The two-and-a-half years between Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and the announcement of its issuance arriving in Texas seems excessive, especially by today’s standards of instant access to news and information. Slavery was not officially outlawed in the US (except as punishment for a crime) until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865.

The first Juneteenth celebration took place on June 19, 1866. A grassroots movement to rally in unity and celebration, Juneteenth spread out as a symbol of freedom even though the battle for equality—through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement—was just beginning.

This year, as protests spread across the country with a wave of change underway, Juneteenth has a new relevance. We spoke to CAS performing arts professor Sybil Roberts Williams, director of African American and African diaspora studies, about the political and cultural significance of Juneteenth. A DC native who recalls growing up in a close-knit Southeast community where watchful neighbors would let her mom know if she was having a popsicle too close to dinnertime, Roberts Williams addressed the holiday’s history, and offered some meaningful ways to mark it.
(The following has been abridged, and edited for brevity.)

Did you grow up with Juneteenth traditions? 
I grew up on the heels of Black Power. We celebrated African American Liberation Day, which was Malcolm X’s birthday—that was the bigger celebration. But Juneteenth always had symbolic meaning, because of the history attached to it.

Juneteenth recognizes the end of the practice of slavery in the US. Is it a holiday of joy or solemnity?
It’s a day of joy and solemnity. There’s this issue that slavery ended, but it took two years to get the word out. How did that happen? It was just so tragic that freedom was delayed for two whole years—that’s an important thing to talk about.

Are there any significant details of the original Juneteenth events that you feel should be noted? 
As slavery was outlawed, Mississippi and Louisiana slaveholders moved west to Texas, because it was “business as usual” there. To some extent, Texas was a compromise. The Union Army was a rare sight in Texas, there was no Sherman marching through, so those enslaved African Americans had no idea.

Many of the enslaved Africans—African Americans—left the plantations on little more than a promise. Freed slaves were simply told, “You have to charge wages from these people who now hate your guts.” We didn’t dismantle the plantation system; all that did was set up sharecropping and peonage.

Even when it reached Texas, the emancipation order was ignored and defied by many slaveholders. How does this considerable delay resonate with the history of Civil Rights in this country? 
People talk about the Emancipation Proclamation as if it solved the race problem in America. No. It laid it bare.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his book, We Were Eight Years in Power, makes a powerful case for reparations. It actually begins with Reconstruction [1863-1877], because we never dealt with reconstruction in the way that we should have; we have not done the work, and Africans were never compensated in the way we said they would be. They were disenfranchised—political blackness terrified this country, terrified white supremacists—and subject to poll tax and grandfather clauses. And then the codification of Jim Crow [1877-1968] set the stage for what followed.

Can you recommend resources for people who want to learn more about the history of this American holiday and other events in our history that celebrate the African American experience?
I would say start with Beloved by Toni Morrison. By looking at the African American experience through the lens of Setha, through her eyes, we can quantify slavery as opportunity and history denied, the symbolic haunting of a people. The August Wilson cycle is another good way to learn about history, particularly Joe Turner’s Come and Gone; it talks about the peonage system, which is what sharecropping actually was, another form of slavery. Big White Fog, [by Theodore Ward] tells what African American life was like in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, so that people can get a sense of the history there—it’s fictitious, but still great history. Ralph Ellison; Richard Wright’s Native Son. I love to play Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, it’s beautiful, it’s visionary. Wynton Marsalis’s Blood on the Fields paints a picture, an entire slave narrative, starting from Africa. We record our history in the arts. 

What is the best way to mark this date, to honor on Juneteenth those lives impacted by slavery?
Any Juneteenth celebration should remember our ancestors and their sacrifices—how they lived, what they did, and what that meant. We have to stop and acknowledge them; take the time to teach people about the history of Africans in America, about the Civil War, about the struggle for Civil Rights. There must be enough solemnity to make it matter.

If you just do parades and have barbecues—that’s lovely, but you miss the point that to get to this place of celebration, there had to be a great amount of sacrifice and courage. There had to be significant choices made, by people who said, “You know, I don’t know what freedom looks like, I don’t know what’s even in the next county, because I’ve never been allowed to go there. But I am going to walk there. And I am going to be free.” That’s a commendable feat.