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“A Heap of Juneteenths”

How the word, and the holiday, came about

By John F. Callahan | June 18, 2020
From the Random House edition of Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison
From the Random House edition of Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison

“There’s been a heap of Juneteenths before this one and I’ll tell
you there’ll be a heap more before we’re truly free. Yes! But keep
to the rhythm, just keep to the rhythm and keep to the way.”
—Ralph Ellison, Juneteenth

Juneteenth is a word that glows with wonder. Literally, it names a day in African-American and American history: June 19, 1865. You would never know that without closing your eyes and diving into the past. On that day, the ship carrying Union Army Major General Gordon Granger anchored in Galveston Harbor. He disembarked and spoke to a large crowd of predominantly African-American men, women, and children still held in slavery in Texas more than two months after the April 9, 1865 surrender of the Confederate States of America at Appomattox.

Texas was remote from the battles of the Civil War, and Texans were the last Americans to hear of abolition. Because cotton needed picking, the plantation owners who had kept their slaves in the dark about the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863, also kept silent about the unconditional abolition of slavery mandated by the 13th amendment, passed by Congress on January 31, 1865. Texas was a long way from Washington, and slave owners saw no reason to acknowledge black freedom any time soon.

But the slaves in and around Galveston had heard enough whispers to know something big was up. When Granger’s 2,000 Union soldiers spread the word that the general would speak to all Texans, free and slave alike, the slaves answered the call, ignoring their masters’ orders to stay away. And so, with his soldiers present along with thousands of Texans, black and white, slave and free, Granger read the order that “in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” The federal order stipulated “an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves,” and stipulated further that “the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

The order concluded with a series of admonitions and prohibitions aimed at the former slaves. “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.”

That’s the public record, those the official words of June 19, 1865. There is a quality of stern foreboding as well as sobriety about these words. The contagious joy of Juneteenth is nowhere in the language.

Juneteenth is not there, and its spirit is also missing. For Juneteenth is private, informal, intimate. Juneteenth is culture. Juneteenth was and is the storytelling, myth, and language of African-American tradition that transformed that particular day into a singular day, and gave all Americans who wanted it the soul of Juneteenth.

Juneteenth was then and remains now poetry.

As the late Michael S. Harper begins his great poem, “Here Where Coltrane Is”:

Soul and race
are private dominions,
memories and modal
songs …

On that first Juneteenth 155 years ago and every Juneteenth since, freed men, women, and children, and later their descendants, go off on their own to absorb the indelible grief of slavery, of “many thousand gone,” as the sorrow song has it, and celebrate and begin to shape the freedom that is theirs and yet to be theirs. I do not imagine them deciding immediately to give the day a name of their choosing or doing so in definite, deliberate, conscious fashion. I imagine these joyous human beings each pinched his or her self and then each other, telling different and similar stories of how it felt to be free. Surely Michael Harper was right that “soul and race” belong to private space, and on Juneteenth the new space the former slaves shared with one another became a unique dominion in America.

Although Juneteenth was an elision of June and 19th, I do not believe the inspired word came about methodically, through a sorting out. First there had to be hand clapping and foot stomping, dancing and singing, eating and drinking and hugging with lots of shouts of free and freedom in different keys until the rhythm expressed feelings in common. According to Ernest J. Gaines’s Miss Jane Pittman, “This what the people was singing: ‘We free, we free, we free / We free, we free, we free … / Oh, Lordy, we free.’ ” In the beginning was the word, and that word, Juneteenth, is a single utterance of African-American vernacular, improvised in the crucible of slavery, suffered and survived by individuals who were (and are) also a people. It is a word simultaneously true to the past, present, and future.

A hundred years after Juneteenth took hold as the sacred, spoken word of a free people, Ralph Waldo Ellison, author of Invisible Man and proud descendant of slaves on both sides of his family, published in the Quarterly Review of Literature  “Juneteenth,” a magnificent chapter from his novel in progress. In the piece, Reverend Alonzo Hickman improvises a rich vernacular sermon on Juneteenth night to a congregation of 5,000 souls assembled outdoors in Georgia a decade or two into the 20th century. Boldly, Ellison summons the sermon from the memory of Senator Adam Sunraider, formerly called Bliss. Reverend Hickman had long ago literally midwifed Bliss into the world, and named him. After his white mother deserts the baby, Hickman, helped by the women of his congregation, raises Bliss, and makes him into a boy preacher who plays a central role in the call-and-response of Hickman’s preaching. Later, on the cusp of adolescence, young Bliss runs away.

Later still, Bliss, now self-named Adam Sunraider, becomes a race-baiting senator from a New England state. Gravely wounded by an assassin’s bullet on the floor of the Senate, Bliss/Sunraider spots Hickman in the gallery and demands that Hickman and only Hickman be brought to his intensive care room in the hospital. There the grown man experiences again the love he had for the Reverend Hickman long ago: “Ah yes, yes, I loved him. Everyone did, deep down. Like a great, kindly daddy bear along the streets, my hand lost in his huge paw … The true father, but black, black.” The dying senator remembers vividly the Juneteenth sermon in which Hickman uses Ezekiel’s dream of Dry Bones to telescope the story of African Americans from their capture in Africa through the middle passage to show slavery as a time when the souls of the slaves “were dead, Lord, dead! Except … ” for a single nerve from every part of the body, especially “from our heart.” In America, as slaves “we had received a new song in a new land and been resurrected by the Word and Will of God.”

Subtly, the time of Hickman’s sermon shifts from slavery to the partial freedom proclaimed by Juneteenth and its aftermath, where freedom is part truth, part illusion. As Hickman tells it, rhythm stands for the force of personality and culture that makes black Americans complete as individuals and a people even as they “keep inching along like an old inchworm” toward freedom.

In Hickman’s, and Ellison’s, words: “There’s been a heap of Juneteenths before this one and I tell you there’ll be a heap more before we’re truly free! Yes! But keep to the rhythm, just keep to the rhythm and keep to the way. … Time will come round when we’ll have to be their eyes; time will swing and turn back around.”

Ellison (and Hickman) had it right: “there’ll be a heap more before we’re truly free.” The we is all of us, not only African Americans, but all of the American people, every individual one of us.

In the fraught present moment of the 2020 Juneteenth celebration, one fitting expression of the timely timelessness that accompanies becoming “truly free” would be for the 45th president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, to ask the Congress of the United States to declare Juneteenth a permanent national holiday.

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