‘We Must Act Out Our Freedom’

We Keep Us Safe; photograph by Amandla Baraka
Amandla Baraka
Amandla Baraka: We Keep Us Safe, June 2020

I will look for you in the stories of new kings. Juneteenth isn’t mentioned in the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois or Carter Woodson, the founder of The Journal of Negro History. I haven’t yet come across a description of the first Juneteenth celebrations equivalent to Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s report of the ceremonies for the Emancipation Proclamation as it was read aloud on Port Royal Island, South Carolina, on New Year’s Day, 1863. Black troops, white commanders, white clergymen, white women schoolteachers, black women schoolteachers, and the formerly enslaved turned resisters gathered at the sober campground to ratify in their hearts the next covenant of the Republic.

Various sources tell us that when news of Lee’s surrender in Virginia reached the West a few weeks later, the Confederate army in Texas began to fall apart. Even so, federal authority depended on the presence of Union troops. In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant remembers that General Gordon Granger charged with “such a roar of musketry” at the Battle of Chattanooga that the rebels heard him from a long way off and had time to get away. When Grant learned that Granger had turned up in New Orleans, the War Department ignored his advice that the general not be given another command. Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to announce and enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. Texas was the last Confederate state to be occupied.

Surprise is an essential element of beauty, the poets say, and several arresting minutes of silent film shot by Reverend S.S. Jones in Oklahoma City in 1925 have been making the Internet rounds of late. His stationary camera captures a Juneteenth parade, a bold march of heartbreakingly well-dressed black people—marching bands, Pullman porters, black women’s clubs under large black umbrellas, and black veterans of both World War I and the Spanish-American War. They are moving through a residential neighborhood where we see scarcely any spectators, as if everyone who lived on that tidy street were in the parade. Juneteenth was a black holiday out West, not down South, I assumed, and therefore not a memory that traveled with black people in their migrations to the cities of the Northeast and Midwest in the first half of the twentieth century. Observance of Juneteenth supposedly fell off over time. It was revived nationally in the Black Expo days of the 1970s, when Kwanzaa was first catching on as the Africanist Christmas.

I’d not heard of Juneteenth until Ralph Ellison’s long-awaited second novel was published posthumously in 1999.* Juneteenth is mostly voice, or voices, “in the beloved idiom,” as Ellison said. It centers on the confrontation between a white senator and the black preacher who taught him when still a boy how to hold a crowd.…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.