This holiday requires a new twist: Hard questions about our past
Holidays are the holy days of our civil religion. They mark major moments of development in the history of salvation (whether of the church or the nation), pointing us to events in the past that made possible the present we now enjoy. Implicitly they lay a claim upon us, asking us to remember, acknowledge, and even draw lessons. “You were once slaves in Egypt, but God freed you. Remember him.” “You were once subjects, not citizens. Guard your freedoms.”
Very often our holy days invoke past sacrifice, the shedding of blood. Passover reminds us of the angel of death, and the wailing over the first-born of Egypt. It might also remind us of the greed and stubbornness that made such a horror necessary, and prompt us to reflect on whether we share more with the Egyptians than we’d like to think. Good Friday reminds us of Jesus’ death at the combined hands of the state and of religious leaders jealous of their power. Even Easter carries a penumbra of sorrow, as we’re reminded that God had to raise Jesus from the dead only because men had first killed him.
Holidays can create space within which we can wonder if we, faced with a real test, wouldn’t also be reliable cogs in the state’s murderous machinery, or fearful protectors of privilege, or compliant members of the crowd chanting “Crucify him!”
July 4th reminds us that lives were pledged—and lost—in the pursuit of independence; Memorial Day that our wars have their fallen; Labor Day that men were hanged so we could have a weekend. Thanksgiving Day became national only after the Battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg; it seemed proper at that moment in 1863 to reflect on God’s “anger for our sins,” as well as his mercy, not forgetting, as Lincoln implored, “all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”
As you’ve no doubt noticed, and probably lamented, America tends to be short on the lessons-and-reflection aspects of holidays and long on the food, decorations, and things-going-bang-in- the-sky parts. They prefer not to dwell on the past, especially if it’s sad, or even just “heavy.” Americans like their occasions upbeat, and if that requires an intentional amnesia such that we never fully know ourselves, that’s a risk most of us are more than happy to run. You can’t quantify self-awareness.
There’s another, cleverer way to keep the holidays safe and happy, and that is to define their essence in a way that avoids anything upsetting. In a recent column on Juneteenth, conservative thinker Jonah Goldberg admirably displays such a tactic. Defending the holiday against other conservatives who see it as un-American, he suggests that making Juneteenth a holiday for white and not just Black Americans will remind us that we can be “rightly proud that we did away with an institution existentially at war with the best version of ourselves.” America alone, he claims, joined hypocrisy with injustice in its embrace of slavery. America alone, he says, puts human rights front and center, making the practice of slavery fundamentally inconsistent with its very meaning as a nation.
Few historians would disagree that Americans, braying about equality one moment and offering fire-breathing defenses of chattel slavery in the next, were exceptionally hypocritical. But by what logic should they be proud that after nearly a century of this they eventually—and reluctantly, and only partially—woke up to the contradiction? Was it because we not only abolished slavery but exchanged the hypocrisy of owning human beings for another: the hypocrisy of denying them full equality?
Goldberg fails to mention two things even more troubling, although he surely is aware of them. First, the United States was a comparative late-comer among western societies in abolishing slavery. Only Brazil, Portugal, and Spain came after. France, Great Britain, and Mexico, among many others, preceded us by decades. The Texan revolutionaries of the 1830s actually had to re-adopt chattel slavery in the wake of Mexico’s emancipation: The institution wasn’t something Texans inherited from the misty past but something they consciously chose in the age of steam locomotion. What does it mean that these other societies—which according to Goldberg lack our profound appreciation for inalienable rights—lapped us? The very fact of Juneteenth should have us at least asking the question.
Not only that. For the fact of Juneteenth—how it became an event in the first place—raises an even bigger question. Juneteenth, as everyone now knows, was the belated announcement of emancipation to Texas slaves by Union General Gordon Granger two months after the war’s conclusion at Appomattox and a month after the last battle in the West. The U.S. was alone among nations in requiring a contest of arms to resolve the slavery issue. Only in this nation did emancipation issue from the barrel of a gun. Abolition required not just a military effort but a military effort that was one of the largest in world history up to that time. It remains by far the deadliest war in America’s history. Americans didn’t just fight over the question of a state’s right to secede; they slaughtered one another in the hundreds of thousands because half the nation preferred to kill rather than see the right to own human property questioned. The other half preferred to kill rather than accommodate them. When it comes to killing Americans, Tojo, Hitler, and bin Laden are mere also-rans. Americans themselves take home the gold.
Juneteenth could be an occasion for reflecting upon questions such as these. And more: What was it about America that made it cling to slavery with such bloody tenacity, even at the risk of alienating the opinions of mankind? How was it that so many Americans would choose to sever their ties with the republic—and their brothers and sisters—over seeing slavery infringed upon? How is it that a people could wage war with itself to such astonishing, murderous, effect? And in what context should we place that conflict? Is it an anomaly? Or should we see the violence of the Civil War as part of a larger pattern, intertwined with the rebellion that birthed the nation nearly a century earlier, the racial violence of lynchings and massacres like that of Tulsa, and the violent protests that have rocked the nation from Kent State to January 6th? And if so, what shapes that pattern?
We talk much, when asked to define America, about freedom, independence, and, of late, diversity. Making one of many has never been a simple task. Juneteenth, remembered rightly, is a good reminder of how hard America has found it to live up to its own ideals.
John H. Haas teaches U.S. history at Bethel University in Indiana.