Book Review: ON JUNETEENTH
by Annette Gordon-Reed
Liveright Publishing Corporation
A Division of W.W. Norton & Company
Review by Ebele Oseye
Texas born author Annette Gordon-Reed offers so much in her timely historical memoir, On Juneteenth. Of course she observes that this celebration might soon become a national holiday, and it is. Toward the end of the narration, we learn that her great-great-grandfather registered to vote in 1867! And voting rights were still an issue one hundred years later in the 1960’S? And voting rights are still an issue in 2021?
This Texas with a “national and international consciousness, home to NASA, home of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and place where John F. Kennedy was assassinated, is also home to Emancipation Park, organized by four black men in 1872, Richard Allen, Richard Brock, Elias Dibble and Jack Yates.
While the opening pages are compelling and informative, they are not always “easy”. American slavery was not that long ago and certainly not so far away. When Texas joined the Union in 1845, is was as a slave state. And while slavers too frequently sexually assaulted enslaved women, it is the African male who is identified as sexual offender and the few lynchings cited in this book are stressful reminders of the continuing killings. The murder of Bob White in “an open courtroom in front of a judge, lawyers and dozens of spectators” and the jury does not even deliberate for two minutes before declaring the murderer not guilty? On the same page we learn of Joe Winters, “burned alive at the stake on the courthouse square after a teenaged girl accused him of rape.” (p 34) Didn’t Carolyn Bryant at age 82 say it never happened, referring to Emmitt Till?
The Juneteenth announcement is here. General Order No. 3 is cited here. “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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” (p. 124)
There is so much to be discussed. How doe this order call for things to remain the same even as it announces a big change? Is it possible for African Americans to love a place which the author describes as “deeply oppressive to their ancestors”? Are the racial indignities suffered by the author who as a little girl received frowns from cashiers in stores when she made a purchase, are all racial indignities to be understood as “structural” rather than individual racism? We will certainly benefit from a careful exploration of “The idea of violence as a solution to a problem “(p 100) And “What is the morality that would say the oppressors’ version of historical events?” (p. 38)
Just past the midpoint of the book, the author identifies bacteria and viruses as some of the greatest powers in a world filled with multiple complications(page 88). What a timely statement when political powers in the contemporary moment have tried three times to disable affordable health care during a horrific pandemic. We are reminded of the power of nature and reminded of our responsibility to learn from the past, to better prepare ourselves for the future..
This power packed book which quotes W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, ends with a feast. On Juneteenth is the sixth chapter is this carefully crafted book which frequently examines the role played by literature, including legends and myths. Annette Gordon-Reed is calling us to come and witness the Truth. She is calling us to remember the resilience of our ancestors. She is calling us to Celebrate Freedom. Let us place this invaluable Truth in the hands of our young.