Disrupting Juneteenth

We headed off in the morning to Auburn Avenue for the Juneteenth celebration and festivities. By 11, the bands and floats had lined up. As the rain began, children danced, I heard the Morehouse band playing, the blocks between the old Wheat Street Baptist Church and Ebenezer were alive. The floats rolled on, undeterred by rain — you know how we do. Back in Decatur, the “white” Juneteenth in the square — the first such celebration of its kind to take place in the city immediately east of Atlanta — was called off due to rain. Just east of Decatur, in Avondale Estates, the Juneteenth commemoration was also called off due to rain…and two Black owned businesses were vandalized.

Juneteenth has always been about disruption. Disruption of texas’s narrative of perpetual Black enslavement; Black disruption of america’s founding narrative of freedom for a select group of men.

If we look at it honestly, the idea of free Black people is still a fundamental disruption of the idea of the united states. One political party demands that citizenship of Black people be curtailed; the other major political party demands the “rights” of Black people must be conditioned on bi-partisanship, good behavior, exceptional accomplishment, and other hurdles that are eerily similar to poll-taxes of a supposedly by-gone era. In other words we are still wrestling with freedom as something that is, as Rinaldo Walcott writes in his The Long Emancipation, “legislative and conferred” rather than an inalienable quality of being human.

For the last few months I’ve been sitting with these notions of Juneteenth. It came and went. Then came the fourth of july, then came Emancipation Day (the commemoration of slavery’s end in the british empire). Perhaps it was that today is James Baldwin’s 97th birthday — born the same year as my father who read each of his books so deeply and and held the words so dearly — that allows me to release these words now.

I can’t tell you when I first learned about Juneteenth. Maybe in grade school, or high school, a footnote in the understanding of Black life in america that was like breath in the Atlanta communities that I grew up in.

What I can tell you is that some of my earliest memories are of sitting on my grandfather’s front porch and listening to him tell how “Granny”, his grandmother whose name was Chanie Williams, became free. When she was a child of maybe 11 or 12 she noticed Union soldiers arriving at the Alabama farm on which her family was enslaved. They told her parents that they were now free people. One of the soldiers — really a boy of 16 — fell in love with her on the spot (my grandfather — “Lemon” we called him — was known to take a liberty or two) and said that he’d be back when she was old enough to ask for her hand. A few years later, the soldier returned and they were married in 1871.

My great great grandmother Chanie Garrett. A photo of her partner Alex Garrett, witness to the first Juneteenth, is in the upper right of the image

My mother pieced together that that the soldier was Alec (Alex) Garrett. He’d joined the army — the 29th Illinois United States Colored Infantry — in 1863. His enlistment card describes a 16 year old 5’6″ young man, and lists his birthplace as Jamaica. In the 1880 census, he lists virginia as his place of birth. Maybe he was born in Jamaica and transported “illegally” to a virginia farm. Maybe he escaped a virginia plantation and found it safer to list Jamaica to avoid capture — the united states was reluctant to harbor Black escapees from the confederacy during the first years of the civil war. I imagine that he’d been among the hundreds of thousands of Black people that W.E.B. DuBois describes who left plantations and farms of the south during the first years of the war.

His unit liberated Richmond in 1865 the first unit to occupy the confederate capitol after its fall. The featured image for this post is of a Juneteenth celebration in Richmond which took place in 1905. The 29th USCT unit fought in the last engagement of the civil war at Appomattox, and were witness to Robert E. Lee’s surrender.

Most significantly, his unit was ordered to Galveston, texas in 1865 (yes, after the surrender of the confederacy) and was there on June 19, 1865 when the general order, reiterating to Black folk in Galveston that they were free. This event was the basis of Juneteenth.

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 quietly 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.

General Orders, No. 3. U.S. House, 54th Congress, 1st Session (H. Doc. 369, Part 2). “General Order Number 3,” 1896. U.S. Documents Collection. Y 1.1/2: SERIAL 3437
A Galveston paper lamenting freedom for the “negroes” in August of 1865

The orders that restated the freedom of the enslaved also restates the assumption that Black people were inherently lazy, and needed to be put to work. As if the toil and trauma that Alec experienced wasn’t enough, as if the sun up to sun down labor extracted from Chanie and her parents and ancestors was of no value

A good number of the Americans who would want to settle on land in this area would hardly want to clear and work that land themselves. They expected to have enslaved people do the clearing and planting, and they would hesitate to move to Texas without assurances that their property rights in enslaved people would be preserved.

Annette Gordon-Reed, On Juneteenth

Even now, america adheres to Grainger’s general orders — each president I’m aware of repeats the assumptions of Black criminality and laziness — we are not worthy of the basic entitlements of humanity, never quite measuring up to the level of effort required for complete humanity. Yet there are centuries of receipts

We find that enslaved workers were responsible for somewhere between 18.7 and 24.3 percent of the increase in commodity output per capita nationally between 1839 and 1859 – comparable to the increase in commodity output deriving from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in New England.

The Contribution of Enslaved Workers to Output and Growth in the Antebellum United States
By Mark Stelzner and Sven Beckert

W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction beautifully lays out the significance of Black labor, he begins the chapter The General Strike

How the Civil War meant emancipation and how the black worker won the war by a general strike which transferred his labor from the Confederate planter to the Northern invader, in whose army lines workers began to be organized as a new labor force

W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction

In one of those porch stories, my grandfather mentioned that his grandfather had been enslaved on the Garrett tobacco company. I’ve constructed a story in which he escaped or simply walked off of the plantation as soon as guns of war sounded and that he kept moving north until his hands were deemed worthy enough to fight to free his own kin. Like the question of whether Alex was born in virginia or Jamaica, the “truth” of this is lost to time. In one sense it does not matter, because his very existence is the trace and embodiment of so many who did.

The Southern worker, black and white, held the key to the war; and of the two groups, the black worker raising food and raw materials held an even more strategic place than the white. This was so clear a fact that both sides should have known it. Fremont Missouri took the logical action of freeing slaves of the enemy round about him by proclamation, and President Lincoln just as promptly repudiated what he had done.

W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction

There is a myth that america wishes to hold onto in Juneteenth, July 4th, Martin Luther King day, and other commemorations. It is that the freedom of Black people was a singular event. A myth that it constantly seeks to uphold that there was a singular event in which the state is absolved of the denial of Black humanity.

For Chanie Garrett and her partner Alex, as for all of the other people enslaved in america, the quest for freedom was a continuous process, a life’s work, a living prayer. Alex — and some thousands of his compatriots escaped enslavement in 1863; my paternal ancestors were un-enslaved in 1864 as farms and plantations on which they lived were liberated by Sherman’s army; Chanie’s family was likely un-enslaved in 1865.

Chanie and Alex married, had children, and grandchildren, farmed their land; Alex voted, Chanie hosted Booker T. Washington for Sunday dinners;they saw their voting rights eroded, lost a son to the klan, sent a grandson — my grandfather — to safety in Atlanta when a klansman threatened his life for demanding service at a grocery store. How many Black boys, girls, grandmothers and aunts have perished at grocery stores in the interim for far less?

The conditions of Black life, past and present, work against any notion that what we inhabit in the now is freedom. Postslavery and postcolony, Black people, globally, have yet to experience freedom. We remain in the time of emancipation. Emancipation is commonly understood as the “freeing of the slaves” in the post-Columbus world, but emancipation is a legal process and term that I will argue marks continued unfreedom, not the freedom it supposedly ushered in.

Rinaldo Walcott, The Long Emancipation: Moving tow

They created communities and rich worlds of love and feeling despite the constant threat of the most brutal life-cancelling violence of un-freedom. Again and again.

I take a long view, understanding full well that I’m just a tiny, little part of a story that already has a huge antecedent and has something that is going to come after that. I’m definitely not going to be even close to around for seeing the end of it. That also puts me in the right frame of mind: that my little friggin’ thing I’m doing is actually pretty insignificant in world history, but if it’s significant to one or two people, I feel good about that. If I’m making my stand in the world and that benefits my particular community of people, the people I designate as my community, and I see them benefiting from my labor, I feel good about that. That actually is enough for me.

Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us

The day after Juneteenth became an american holiday, the united states supreme court threw out a case brought by six Malian citizens against Nestlé and Cargill. The Malian citizens had been enslaved on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast and forced to work under inhuman conditions. Nestlé and Cargill were aware that the plantations used child slavery, but continued to source cocoa beans from them, and provided the plantations with extensive material support. The supreme court upheld american corporations right to enslave and exploit African people. The Cargill family is the fifth wealthiest family in the united states. The Cargill corporation was formed in 1865.

When I look at the picture of my great great grandmother Chanie — an ancestor I never met — I see a confident and unbroken woman. I see an invitation to make sense out of a struggle that allowed my existence. I see a piercing invitation that she makes to generations she knew that she would never hold or caress to take up the creation of freedom. I feel her love and I hear the many prayers that she said upon me before even the laughter and cries of my parents were possibilities. That america will one day come to be guided by this truth — which is nothing less than embrace of the preciousness of all human life, all life — is inevitable

the excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they can endure everything. They do not know the precise shape of the future, but they know that the future belongs to them. They realize this — paradoxically — by the failure of the moral energy of their oppressors and begin, almost instinctively, to forge a new morality, to create the principles on which a new world will be built.

James Baldwin, No Name in the Street

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