Juneteenth, Joy, and Jazz

Juneteenth, Joy, and Jazz

John Clark
Sagamore Institute

Juneteenth may be the greatest holiday you’ve never heard of. Commemorating the end of slavery, Juneteenth reminds all of us that freedom matters, and to create a better society we must work – and play – together.

Juneteenth was born in Galveston on June 19, 1865, when Gen. Gordon Granger of the occupying Union Army proclaimed:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

Aware that the war had ended with the South’s defeat in April, whites greeted the decree with stony silence. For blacks, however, the announcement that they were free was news. Their masters hadn’t gotten around to telling them about Abraham Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation” two and a half years earlier. Observers described an outburst of cheers and whoops, crying and dancing that spread across the city. Said one newly liberated woman, “We all walked down the road singing and shouting to beat the band.”

America’s slavery was particularly barbaric because it gave no rights or legal protection to slave families. Owners could sell their “property” with no regard to connections of kinship or love. Thus within weeks many of Galveston’s ex-slaves had left the region, setting off to search for long-separated sons and daughters, parents and spouses.

But first they partied.

While their former masters cringed behind locked doors, awaiting the eruption of (what many have considered well-deserved) vengeance that never came, the newly freed slaves celebrated outdoors for days. Story-telling contests, feasts unlike anything they had tasted, story-telling contests, marathons of song and dance … it was two and a half centuries of suppressed happiness finally allowed spontaneous expression. I wish I’d been there, and I’ll bet you do too.

Calling Juneteenth the “African American Independence Day” reminds us that even though the country was founded with the bold proclamation that “all men are created equal,” a quarter of those who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 were slave-owners. For the people they called “property,” the Fourth of July was not much different from the Third.

Don’t think, however, only African Americans have a right or reason to celebrate their Independence Day. Slavery poisoned and perverted the nation’s values. Justice and equality before the law imply that none of us are free unless all of us are free. Thus the destruction of this evil system liberated all Americans, and Juneteenth deserves to be celebrated joyfully by everyone, black and white (and yellow and brown). It goes deeper than this, even. In his great posthumously published novel, Juneteenth, Ralph Ellison writes that blacks and whites in America are bound by “some cord of kinship stronger and deeper than blood or hate or heartbreak.”

For decades in Texas and the South, as Jim Crow restrictions increasingly barred them from public and civil life, African Americans reasserted their emancipation with grand Juneteenth festivities. These elaborate traditions vanished a bit with the Great Migration north and with the real (albeit incomplete) achievements of the civil rights movement.

Neglecting this holiday today would be a shame. Juneteenth gives us all an opportunity to reflect on America’s future as well as it past. Again, to quote Ellison: “There’s been a heap of Juneteenths before this one, and I tell you there’ll be a heap more before we’re truly free!” We don’t need a few hate-filled, house-torching bigots to remind us 140 years after Gen. Granger’s Galveston proclamation that race remains our country’s great unhealed wound.

Indiana is not one of the fifteen states that have declared Juneteenth an official holiday. No problem. Juneteenth shouldn’t be commemorated by mall sales or profits for greeting card companies. It’s a time for spontaneous fun, for the enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures. If Thanksgiving is “Turkey Day,” Juneteenth is “Barbeque Day.” This weekend you could go to the park, firing up the grill with family and friends (old and new). How better to honor the slave families cruelly ripped apart by the greed and caprice of their owners?

Those (like me) who wish they’d been present at the original Juneteenth celebration should go to the Children’s Museum on June 18. All day the splendid Freetown Singers will engage visitors in story-telling, songs and dance. As always, having kids is just an excuse for grown-ups to visit the Children’s Museum: everyone should go.

If you are in Bloomington on June 19, you should participate in IU’s Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center’s Juneteenth celebration. A parade, musical performances, a drama about the Underground Railroad … it sounds like a traditional Texas Juneteenth.

One of the truly important institutions in Indianapolis is Martin University, established in 1977 to serve low-income, minority, and adult learners. Juneteenth weekend is a great chance to learn more about Martin University during its Community Day. June 18 from 10 AM to 4 PM you can meet students and faculty members, tour the campus, eat free food, and try to win prizes.

An important part of understanding the meaning of slavery is to seek a better understanding of the African cultures from which those who were to be slaves were wrenched. Indianapolis is very fortunate to host a performance on Juneteenth of the great Zimbabwean musician Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi, along with the Black Spirits and with the Kenyan group of dancers and musicians, Jabali Afrika. This will be at the Music Mill on the NE side of Indianapolis. I have a couple of CDs by Mtukudzi, he is awesome! (On the other hand, even though my colleagues at www.indyethnicfood.com assure me the food there is great, I am not convinced that I am cool enough to hang out at the Music Mill. And so…)

This weekend I’ll be in Military Park, celebrating Juneteenth at the Indy Jazz Fest. Although the festival’s organizers for some reason never mention Juneteenth, ethnic as well as musical harmony is prominently displayed at the Jazz Fest. No other local event features such easy and natural blending of colors on the stage, or such casual and unselfconscious mingling in the audience. Friends and strangers, drawn together by a shared passion for cool tunes. Jazz, after all, is more than this country’s major contribution to world art. It’s the beautiful flower growing out of the dungheap of American racism. For a century jazz music has been created by blacks and whites, playing freely as equals. What better image for what race relations can become, and what better way to celebrate this great and underappreciated holiday of Juneteenth?

John Clark is Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy research. Contact him at john@sipr.org.

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