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Essential Reads for Juneteenth

Five books (plus one) that highlight the importance of Juneteenth and the journey of Black America.

June 17, 2022
People carrying Juneteenth banner
John Raoux/AP

More than two years after the sign­ing of the Eman­cip­a­tion Proclam­a­tion, enslaved Black Amer­ic­ans on the island of Galve­ston, Texas, finally received word of their free­dom. Arriv­ing in the city on June 19, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger read aloud General Order No. 3, announ­cing that “all slaves are free” and an “abso­lute equal­ity of personal rights and rights of prop­erty between former masters and slaves.”

This is considered to be the moment when news of the end of chat­tel slavery finally reached the farthest corner of the Confed­er­acy. And though the insti­tu­tion would persist in parts of the United States until the rati­fic­a­tion of the Thir­teenth Amend­ment, Black Amer­ic­ans have long celeb­rated Juneteenth as the arrival of eman­cip­a­tion. As a result of the passage of the Juneteenth National Inde­pend­ence Day Act last year, the celeb­ra­tion is today a federal holi­day observed by Amer­ic­ans of all races, ethni­cit­ies, and nations of origin.

Amidst the celeb­ra­tion, however, we should not lose sight of the mark that slavery has left on our coun­try, the remnants of which continue to plague our soci­ety’s systems of demo­cracy and justice. The import­ance of Juneteenth comes into clearer focus when the stor­ies that consti­tute the jour­ney of Black Amer­ica are spot­lighted and mean­ing­fully considered. Eman­cip­a­tion is perhaps the most trans­form­a­tional event in U.S. history, but the act of enga­ging the exper­i­ences of people before and since eman­cip­a­tion is the only way to gain a fuller appre­ci­ation of our nation’s progress — it is the only way to advance the idea of the “abso­lute equal­ity of personal rights” for all. To this end, the follow­ing read­ing list can help us collect­ively take the next step toward a more perfect union. 

On Juneteenth book cover

On Juneteenth
by Annette Gordon-Reed 

A short treat­ise by Pulitzer Prize–win­ning histor­ian and native Texan Annette Gordon-Reed, On Juneteenth is an impli­cit inter­rog­a­tion of the holi­day through a deep explor­a­tion of a Black Texan’s lived exper­i­ence. It connects the stor­ies of the author’s enslaved ancest­ors to her upbring­ing celeb­rat­ing Juneteenth at a time when Jim Crow still ran rough­shod over her community. The import­ance of place — of having a connec­tion to a distinct culture and way of life — looms through­out, noting how cent­ral it is to our layered iden­tit­ies: personal, social, local, and national. And in Gordon-Reed’s deft storytelling, the reader cannot help but notice the distance between the big ideas on which the nation was foun­ded and how poorly they often have been put into prac­tice, espe­cially when it comes to the ques­tion of racial equal­ity. 

 

South to America book cover

South to Amer­ica: A Jour­ney Below the Mason-Dixon to Under­stand the Soul of a Nation
by Imani Perry

A child of the South who spent the bulk of her upbring­ing in the North­east, Imani Perry takes read­ers on an emotional trip through the states where the coun­try’s soul often teetered on the precip­ice. In each stop — from Mary­land south and west to Louisi­ana and places beyond — Perry notes a histor­ical tragedy that char­ac­ter­izes the path away from slavery and Jim Crow as a harsh, tortured jour­ney that was only possible because of the indom­it­able spir­its of the people who traversed it. Whether the racist 1898 coup in Wilm­ing­ton, North Caro­lina, that over­threw a duly elec­ted multiracial coali­tion or abol­i­tion­ists’ failed raid on Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia, it is pain­fully clear how cent­ral race is to the struggle over the nation’s soul and how the South has long played a star­ring role. In this way, Perry reminds the reader of a truth about Amer­ican demo­cracy: as the South goes, so goes the nation.

 

How the Word is Passed book cover

How the Word Is Passed
by Clint Smith

In much the same way Imani Perry’s book traversed the South, Clint Smith escorts read­ers to histor­ical sites across the coun­try to explore the ways slavery is remembered and discussed. It is both an ode to the power of storytelling and a critique of the flawed processes of story selec­tion when the nation’s short­com­ings are on display. The expec­ted exper­i­ences in some of the South­ern sites — such as Angola State Prison in Louisi­ana and Bland­ford Cemetery in Peters­burg, Virginia — still manage to shock with the horror they capture and the sanit­ized way the sites are discussed by staff and tour guides. But for a coun­try that cari­ca­tures racism as a prob­lem of the Amer­ican South, the visits to Manhat­tan and Gorée Island, Senegal, show how far-reach­ing the storytelling and myth­mak­ing go. Ulti­mately, Smith offers insight into the national soli­lo­quy on slavery at a time when our collect­ive memory is at the center of debate.

 

Homegoing book cover

Homego­ing
by Yaa Gyasi 

The only fiction work on this list, Yaa Gyasi’s Homego­ing traces the lineage of two African sisters — one whose line is stolen in the Atlantic slave trade and the other whose grows in Ghana. There is a spir­itual memory that connects the descend­ants, but the lines have drastic­ally differ­ent fates given the soci­et­ies in which they live. It is a reminder that Black Amer­ic­ans did not arise out of nowhere and that their origin story is not contained to the lash of slavery. Rather, there is a transat­lantic connec­tion to rich tradi­tions — in both direc­tions, from Africa to Amer­ica and vice versa — that have given birth to distinct peoples. And that connec­tion, over time and distance and remem­ber­ing, is an inim­it­able aspect of our stor­ies.

 

You Don't Know Us Negroes book cover

You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays
by Zora Neale Hurston

This volume was published six decades after the death of Zora Neale Hurston, an early-twen­ti­eth-century author who came to prom­in­ence during the Harlem Renais­sance. It is a collec­tion of her opin­ions on a range of topics, from slavery and demo­cracy to love and reli­gion. Read­ers quickly learn that Hurston’s views are not a synthesis of the cari­ca­tured posi­tions of a Black Amer­ica too often perceived as uniform in its polit­ics and policy pref­er­ences. Hurston complic­ates stereo­types of Black Amer­ic­ans, offer­ing a staunch indi­vidu­al­ism that is just as authen­tic­ally Black as the collect­iv­ism often attrib­uted to the group and its move­ments but habitu­ally over­looked by others. These essays are a reminder that in consid­er­ing the jour­ney of Black people in Amer­ica, we should not fall victim to the idea that there is a single story that captures it in full. 

 

When the Starts Begin to Fall book cover

Bonus Read: When the Stars Begin to Fall: Over­com­ing Racism & Renew­ing the Prom­ise of Amer­ica
by Theodore R. John­son
 

While Juneteenth is a celeb­ra­tion of the end of slavery and a moment to better under­stand our nation’s history, it is also a call to action: to right the histor­ical wrongs that impact our contem­por­ary lives. Struc­tural racism often feels like an intract­able prob­lem — one that infects every aspect of our soci­ety and is, there­fore, impossibly diffi­cult to address with policy reforms alone. Stars pulls together insights from history, polit­ical science, soci­ology, and philo­sophy to show that the only way to mitig­ate the harms of struc­tural racism is through the estab­lish­ment of a multiracial national solid­ar­ity. And it suggests that the Black Amer­ican exper­i­ence holds key lessons for how to do so. Further, in the tradi­tion of Black liter­at­ure dating back centur­ies, storytelling of Theodore R. John­son’s family ances­try is used to put flesh and bones on the book’s core ideas. Ulti­mately, Stars lever­ages research and ances­tral narrat­ives to chart a path forward such that the sacri­fices of the gener­a­tions before us for a nation that lives up to its prom­ise are not lost.