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Juneteenth: It’s Complicated

Juneteenth: It’s Complicated
Juneteenth: It’s Complicated

This week, democracy-ish, celebrates its 100th episode just in time for Juneteenth.

  • Juneteenth is the United States’ newest federal holiday. After the House overwhelmingly passed the bill and the Senate unanimously voted for it as well, President Biden signed it into law on Thursday.

  • At the same time, the same GOP members who voted to make Juneteenth a holiday are railing against critical race theory as a curriculum in public schools. What is so threatening about examining history from a nonwhite perspective?

  • Recent shows like “Exterminate All the Brutes” and “High on the Hog” are essentially educating/entertaining the public with a similar lens. What can they teach us about the hidden history of Black America?

On Wednesday, the United States Senate did something that, in our polarized nation, is unfortunately, frustratingly rare: It finally agreed on something. After the House passed the bill with just 14 GOP detractors, the Senate unanimously approved legislation making Juneteenth a federal holiday. President Biden signed it into law on Thursday.

“At the same time, those same Republican politicians are doing everything within their power to erase critical race theory and defund public schools that want to teach it,” says Danielle. “So they're like, hey, Negros, here's a holiday for you. We hope you enjoy your day off.”

Republicans know that encouraging real analysis of our history would mean admitting “the f**kery” of racial injustice, and it would suggest “reparations are coming next,” she adds.

If you teach “all of the ways in which you have robbed Black people of wealth from the moment they stepped foot on our shores, now you owe us something.”

That’s not the only reason why Danielle and Toure’s feelings about our newest holiday are … complicated.

“What is the point of a Juneteenth holiday if we do not understand what it is?” asks Toure. “Juneteenth commemorates the continuing effect of slavery on America and the fact that it remains something that we need to think about, to honor.”

But the conservative establishment seems hellbent on erasing everything that led up to it, and the after-effects of the hundreds of years the U.S. built power on the backs of enslaved people. And furthermore, Juneteenth commemorates the day (June 19, 1865) when enslaved Black people in Texas learned they had been freed –– well, some of them anyway –– nearly two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

“So yes, let's have a day off,” Danielle deadpans.

Episode Highlights –– Happy Juneteenth

‘Freedom’ deferred

It didn’t happen all at once on a specific day, Toure notes. “The news took time to arrive in that period. And I'm sure white people were not dying to let them know as fast as possible that they were able to go.”

Plus, “freedom” was a relative concept. The newly freed slaves had no money, property, or civil rights to speak of.

“I can't even imagine what it was like,” says Toure. “After all the shit you've been through, now you're free to go. Here’s… nothing. How did you get through the next few days and weeks? It wasn't like everyone was suddenly handing them jobs.

That’s why many formerly enslaved people continued to work for their “masters.”

“I'm sure they weren't, like, now we're going to respect you. Now we're going to give you good jobs. Now we're going to give you fair wages,” he adds. “No, the former slaves were getting screwed yet again.”

Is Juneteenth a ‘toothless holiday’?

The uncomfortable truth about Juneteenth is precisely why an open dialogue about American history is crucial. But critical race theory –– aka the truth –– is Fox News’ latest obsession; angry parents at school board meetings railing about their children being “indoctrinated” are getting more air time than –– well, any actual news.

“Most of the people who are against critical race theory could not define it,” says Toure. “But we're talking about teaching reality.”

Meanwhile, in Congress, our elected officials are “going to pat themselves on the back” about passing the Juneteenth legislation, says Danielle. “Look at us. We did something for the Blacks.”

That’s why, at least as far as our current national conversation is concerned, “it's a toothless holiday. Because if you don't understand why Juneteenth matters, then what is the point in a day off? You're not actually going to teach it.”

She can just see it now: “It's a day of celebration. The enslaved were now free. And then everything was great. I can just imagine how it's going to be taught in elementary schools. Here are the crayons –– draw a liberation flag. Yay.”

There’s no “contextual understanding of how what happened impacts where we are. And the thing is, they don't want us to. Because the truth would then require action. It requires you to change. It requires you to expand. And they don't want that.”

A 40-acre fantasy

Toure has been watching Raul Peck’s four-part series “Exterminate All the Brutes” on HBO, a sprawling global history of racism, colonialism and genocide. It’s a kind of academic multimedia essay that blends documentary footage, first-person narrative, animated sequences, vintage movie clips and historical reenactments (along with more than a few what-if fantasies).

“It’s just so powerful, and really takes you into the roots of white supremacy,” says Toure.

Danielle wishes she was a filmmaker, so she could tell a story she’s actually never seen: What would this country look like if the government at the time did actually give Black Americans 40 acres and a mule?

“Imagine if we created laws and policies to uplift these people that we had subjugated,” she says. “We were already one of the wealthiest nations in the world, built on the backs of Black Americans. But I wonder how much more wealthy we could have been. Because discrimination, racism and white supremacy costs money.”

And white folks have always stood on our necks to look taller, says Toure. But “morally speaking, the country would be better off,” he adds.

Wealth is so concentrated among the white population that it’s difficult to imagine the contours of America if that wasn’t the case.

Toure thinks about the Black man who taught Jack Daniels how to make whiskey, and how many more people there are “who, because of their station, gave somebody –– some white person –– a million-dollar business they were able to take and run,” he says.

Haiti’s influence on American power

For Toure, one of the most remarkable parts of “Exterminate All the Brutes” was learning more about the Haitian Revolution of 1791 – 1804.

The enslaved people of Haiti “overthrew their slave masters and created their own country,” Toure explains. “That scared the French. That made them say, you know what? Screw this America thing. And that motivated them to do the Louisiana Purchase, which made America much larger.”

If it weren’t for the Haitians, “America could probably be three different countries,” he adds.

“But the history of Haiti is not at all discussed in the history of America. But it is critical to America becoming a global power. We need to understand that, especially if we think about the way Haitians have been disrespected in this country.”

Danielle points out that the world, not just the United States, treats Haiti with “consistent punishment for the audacity of those people to overthrow their white slave masters. There's a reason why Haiti has stayed in poverty, with broken government after broken government.”

A white lens on revolution

That punishment explains why “Jamaica is this beloved island,” and Haiti is not, Toure says.

And of course, “it was a colony of the fucking U.K.,” says Danielle, pointing out that Jamaicans were considered to be the “good Black people,” while the Haitians who fought back were not.

“We allow history to be viewed through a white lens,” Toure adds. “The French Revolution and the American Revolution are important parts of the movement toward the modern world. But the Haitian Revolution is just not considered part of that. How is that not part of this global desire for people to rise up and control their own destiny?”

But as long as the history is told only by the victors –– those “who held the guns in their hands, we do not truly understand the reality we've been through,” he says.

The ‘last slave ship’: What can ‘Clotilda’ tell us?

Black history is a current that runs through every part of American life, but often it’s quite literally buried, just waiting for us to rediscover. Toure points to a recent segment on “60 Minutes” about the sunken “Clotilda,” the last slave ship known to carry captured Africans to America, and the descendants of those enslaved people.

“Clotilda” landed near Mobile, Alabama in 1860. Though slavery was still legal there, importing new slaves into America had been outlawed in 1808. A wealthy local businessman, Timothy Meaher, hired the ship’s captain to illegally smuggle them.

When the enslaved Africans were freed a few years later, they settled just miles away from where they had disembarked. They passed down their cultural traditions to their children, and their children’s children –– some of whom still live in the neighborhood, now known as “Africatown.”

The not-so-buried truth in Africatown

In an interview with Anderson Cooper, the descendants of the “Clotilda”’s enslaved passengers share powerful stories about how their families kept their ancestors’ legacy alive. In a voiceover, Cooper mentions that “60 Minutes” reached out to the descendants of Meaher, the slave owner, all of whom declined or did not respond.

That’s “because they have to acknowledge that they benefit from it today,” said one of the residents of Africatown, a young woman named Caprinxia Wallace –– it being the generational wealth derived from slave labor.

The remnants of the sunken “Clotilda” were recently found in Alabama, though it is impossible for divers to see under the murky, muddy waters of the Mobile River, just north of the Mobile Bay delta. And yet its discovery is important for African Americans, says Mary Elliott, Curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, in the 60 Minutes video.

“It's important that we found the remnants of this ship, because it's their piece of the true cross; their touchstone to say, "We've been telling you for years. And here's the proof."

‘High on the Hog’: How the sausage is made

Over the weekend, Danielle watched “High on the Hog” on Netflix, a four-part documentary based on the 2011 book by Jessica B. Harris, that explores the history and impact of Black cuisine on American culture.

“The things that I learned make me both proud and disgusted,” she says. “I just have this conflict of emotion these days, where I'm disgusted by this country and also overwhelmed with pride for the Black people who survived –– that they could survive such treachery.”

We learn from “High on the Hog” that cotton was not the only cash crop that shaped America.

“If not for the skill set of enslaved West Africans who were able to cultivate rice growing in the the Carolinas, the South [as we know it] couldn't have fucking existed,” Danielle says.

“Before they arrived, no one knew how to grow rice … The first major chefs in this country, who created some of our most traditional meals, were enslaved African chefs to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But somehow America created this story around Martha Washington being this great cook. And I'm like, Bitch, from where? You never went into the kitchen.

“If you teach these truths, you're like, Well, what did white people actually contribute?

The African roots of our culinary traditions

Toure loved “High on the Hog'' as well. He particularly appreciates that the series begins at the source.

“They start in Africa –– where, of course, our food traditions begin. But so often our story starts in the South,” he says, noting that one of his favorite things about the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., is the cafeteria.

That, too, delves beyond simplistic notions of “soul food” and “really takes seriously the breakdown of Southern cuisine, Western cuisine, Mid-Atlantic cuisine –– it gives our food a really complex, detailed history,” Toure argues.

Intersectional ways of understanding history, such as critical race theory, are like that –– layered, nuanced. They’re the best lens one can have for “deeply unde