By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 21, 2021
On Thursday last, US President Joseph Biden signed into law an important bill (the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act) that makes June 19 a national holiday in the United States to commemorate the end of slavery.
In signing this bill President Biden reminded Americans: “The promise of equality is not going to be fulfilled until we become real—it becomes real in our schools and on our main streets and in our neighbourhoods” (NYT, June 18)
This national holiday has its roots in the long delay it took before the news of the formal freeing of the slaves reached Galveston, Texas. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 but more than 250,000 African Americans remained enslaved in Galveston, Texas, until June 19, 1865 when Union general Gordon Granger brought the news that “all slaves are free”.
Why did it take so long for these unfortunate people to hear of their freedom? Matthew Dowd noted that this “tragic and unconscionable situation” occurred because news reporters and commentators failed “to communicate the federal law, the slave masters did not tell their slaves they had been freed,” and there were few federal troops in Texas to enforce Lincoln’s orders.
Tom McClintock, a Republican, objected to making Juneteenth a holiday on the grounds that he didn’t believe “it’s healthy to reach into the dead past, revive its most malevolent conflicts and reintroduce them into our age”.
McClintock should have read William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun which, as one critic reminds us, “concerns spiritual redemption for past evil deeds through suffering and the recognition of one’s guilt”. In that novel Nancy Mannigoe’s defence lawyer, Gavin Stevens, says to Temple, another character in the novel, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Faulkner, born in Mississippi, explored the question of race relations, particularly as it shaped the American South. He understood that a country’s past, no matter how abhorrent, if left unattended, could poison that country’s future and lead to its destruction. Biden understood that one can deal with the evil of the past only by confronting it and admitting its impact upon a nation’s development.
Needless to say, there was great rejoicing among African-Americans that those in power are recognising and confronting that whole system of racism that has stymied their progress. During the signing of the bill President Biden singled out Opal Lee, who at the age of 89, walked from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, a distance of 1,400 miles, to get Juneteenth named as a national holiday. He called her “a grandmother of the movement to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, and got down on one knee to greet her in the audience” (NYT, June 18).
This symbolic act of repentance touched black people a lot.
This atonement and remembrance of the past is a very important act in the maturing of any nation. In Germany and even Canada it is a crime to say that the Holocaust didn’t occur. Jane Hirschmann writes about how her parents lost everything as they fled from the cruelty of the Nazis.
Once the war was over the Germans paid her father reparations for the loss of his business. She writes: “He received a monthly check until his death at the age of 91. Both of my parents were welcomed back by the German government and told they could get their passports and their citizenship returned” (Truthout, June 17).
Canada, Germany and the United States are large countries with large issues but they realise that the act of repairing is an important symbolic and psychological act in achieving the wholesomeness of their country. We live in a small country where the issues are smaller but we must exert greater energy to understand our past and where our strengths and failures lie.
As a nation we live in a state of long forgetfulness. We do not study our past to find out what we can learn from it. There seems little national purpose or the creation of any mechanism to bind us together as a cohesive people. We are not civil towards our opponents and say the most hurtful things to one another, particularly at the political level.
We want to disparage Kamla Persad-Bissessar because she warns the nation about the coming dangers if we continue to perpetuate the inequalities that we find within the society. But the fault lies within. Bob Marley urged his people: “Open your eyes, look within / Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?” Every great nation, small or large, must look itself in the mirror, ask where it’s going and what it wants to achieve.
President Biden was correct when he said that the US would not become a real nation until the facts of Juneteenth, the Tulsa massacre of 1921 and all the other atrocities committed against its minorities become a more inclusive part of American history. He noted at the White House: “All Americans can feel the power of this day, and learn from our history.”
Yet, I disagree with him on one thing. Slavery is not America’s original sin. America’s original sin resides in the genocide that it committed against the First People and that too the nation must come to grips with.
Let us commend President Biden for reaching out to correct a sin that blighted the land but let us learn from it by taking our history seriously and making it part of our national curriculum. At Independence, the Mighty Sparrow urged: “Spread the word anywhere you pass / Tell the world, there’s a model nation at last.”
Perhaps we can still struggle to reach this ideal.