A year ago today, author Ta-Nehisi Coates and others testified on Capitol Hill at a House hearing on H.R. 40, a bill meant to establish merely a commission to study the possibility of granting reparations to African Americans as recompense for the work of their enslaved forebears. Coates, famously, had made a comprehensive case arguing for reparations in The Atlantic five years earlier. Without it, there is no bill nor any hearing, especially on Juneteenth.
Today, we celebrate African American emancipation from enslavement, the day in 1865 when enslaved black women, men, and children in Texas were forced to finish the harvest before being liberated by President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation, more than two years after the fact. (That December, the 13th Amendment’s ratification would all but abolish slavery, with an important loophole in our incarceration system.) When that word was finally delivered in official fashion, there was not a declaration of liberty, but one of egalitarianism. When General Orders, Number 3 in Galveston advised that there is now “an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves,” the United States finally gave itself a chance to embrace its greatest possibilities.
Juneteenth is the closest thing there is to an honest Independence Day. Yet even today, in the midst of this global revolt against systemic racism and the violence that stems from it, I view this holiday somewhat mournfully. It marks a precise tipping point when America had a choice to go right and failed. Emancipation was not freedom, and it never has been.
“The end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment was a national acknowledgement that slavery was not the way,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, the co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity. “That took so much blood and so much treasure that the nation was too exhausted to stay focused on what you do to actually build freedom.”
The Reconstruction era was already underway in June of 1865, and though the promised 40 acres and a mule would be ripped away, there were protections for the citizenship and legal rights of liberated African Americans. And there was prosperity. But in 1877, the newly elected President, Rutherford B. Hayes. withdrew Army troops from three states, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida. They had been the only force holding at bay white forces seeking to return the South to something approximating its antebellum racial hierarchy. More than 50 years of racial terrorism followed, beginning with what was known as the Redemption Era. That is a moniker that only makes sense if reinstituting white supremacy is your goal. The swell of violence and subjugation soon drowned the progress black freedmen and women had made, setting the stage for some of the very same inequities and work conditions that persist today.
America truly had the chance to fulfill its promise, had it not reverted to racist violence, greed, and the first mission of the republic: to secure white, male wealth and privilege. And in that respect, it ultimately represents a missed opportunity for the nation to save itself from itself.
We appear to have reached another such tipping point here in 2020. The global uprising over systemic racism isn’t quieting down anytime soon, not with Breonna Taylor’s killers still on the loose and unpunished. (Update: Louisville mayor Greg Fischer announced on Friday that he has initiated termination proceedings for Metro Police Detective Brett Hankison, one of the three officers involved in Taylor’s March shooting death.) Not with Rayshard Brooks, 27, shot twice in the back while running away intoxicated holding a Taser, a non-lethal weapon in most scenarios. Not with Florida activist Oluwatoyin Salau, 19, found dead after having sought the help of police after being victimized by domestic violence, and the officers refusing to open an investigation without sufficient evidence. I suppose they have enough now.
I suppose that this continuous bloody stream of death makes the set of reparative measures white Americans are undertaking, while beneficial and good-hearted, seem somewhat haphazard in context. It isn’t as though I don’t appreciate the efforts to do remedial antiracist reading. Seeing authors like Ibram X. Kendi, Ijeoma Oluo, and Brittney Cooper on the bestseller lists gives me actual hope. Thank you, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, for splitting a historic $120 million between the United Negro College Fund and the historically black sibling Atlanta institutions, Morehouse College and Spelman College. I love seeing the Confederates and Christopher Columbuses topple, and seeing Aunt Jemima retired at last. Take Uncle Ben and the grinning brother on the Cream of Wheat logo with you, please.
However, I’d be a fool to mistake any of these steps as progress towards black folks getting less dead in the presence of police officers, which is why we started this conversation in the first place.
Fifty-seven Buffalo cops resigned from their emergency riot team after two of their members were suspended without pay for pushing an elderly white demonstrator to the ground, whereupon he suffered a skull fracture. The man, Martin Gugino, reportedly can’t walk right now. After the Fulton County district attorney charged Garret Rolfe, the officer who shot Brooks twice in the back, with felony murder, several Atlanta officers reportedly caught the “blue flu” and called off work in protest. This is not about public service. Seeing actual legal accountability for their violent actions, protesters call for social service workers to supplant them on certain missions, or demands for the abolition of police altogether, it is no wonder why police officers would want to reinforce their power relationship with the public.
This hearkens back to the question of what defines emancipation versus what constitutes true liberty. The former is something to celebrate. But full citizenship is what we demand, and what has yet to be fully achieved under a state that continues to prioritize white political, physical, and economic power over black lives.
All three of those forces tie together, and have since the inception of chattel slavery. In his opening testimony, Coates spotlighted how not merely were enslaved people the cornerstone of a more than $600 million economy at the height of the Confederacy in the early 19th century, but just how that wealth was built. “The method of cultivating this asset was neither gentle cajoling nor persuasion, but torture, rape, and child trafficking,” Coates told Congress. “Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to all, regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind.”
In his essay for the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond added to that point, noting that not merely did chattel slavery prove essential to the very formation of American capitalism, but that its inclusion betrayed the “liberty and justice for all” creed that we spouted robotically as children when we said the Pledge of Allegiance. “Given the choice between modernity and barbarism, prosperity and poverty, lawfulness and cruelty, democracy and totalitarianism,” Desmond wrote, “America chose all of the above.”
Rejecting that ghastly compromise seems to be a key mission of the protesters, of all colors, but there is a danger of exhaustion, and of distraction. President Trump will do his best to shift the national attention his way on Saturday with a rally in Tulsa — moved from Friday so as to not have the white-nationalist president coming to the city that suffered the Black Wall Street Massacre 99 years ago on the Juneteenth holiday. He pissed just enough people off to center himself in the holiday narrative, later insisting that he made the day “very famous.” On Friday morning, the president then threatened Americans who might protest his rally with state-powered violence: “Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!”
I’m so tired of this. Trump, for decades, has embraced and promoted the criminalization of black people, only to recently hold up the emancipation of a couple under his watch as false evidence of his change of heart. His policies and rhetoric still work consciously in contradiction to black freedom and survival. He is the embodiment of an America meant to wear us down, one where our lives are plagued by inequities from health care to business, and where Floyd begged for his life under the knee of the white man who killed him. Where the officers who shot and killed Taylor are still, as of now, “protecting and serving.” It is exhausting for black folks to just be nowadays. And the white allies supplanting those black folks, whose job it truly is to fix this broken system, cannot think that holding up a book purchase or a donation will be sufficient.
That’s why I felt Goff’s words in my bones when he said to me at the end of our conversation, “Our freedom is exhausting to hold in the white imagination. And the idea of pursuing justice is exhausting for the rest of us.”
But as we celebrate Juneteenth in the midst of this charlatan’s presidency and this global reckoning on racism, it only becomes more important that we begin work on what America truly needs: a New Reconstruction, a strong and truly reparative framework for correcting the wrongs done to black people. Something more substantial than the chokehold bans that have been tried, and certainly reforms that only ultimately give police departments more money and power. We appreciate that Aunt Jemima is gone, but that won’t do anything to ensure that our children will survive their next traffic stop. The chains are off, but we are not yet free.