Why do we need to spend more time talking about the legacy of slavery and having long and drawn-out conversations about race in America? After all, Lincoln freed the slaves, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream and President Barack Obama was “Change We Can Believe In.” All indications are that we have achieved parity among Black and white Americans and that we now have equal opportunity. The end; history lesson complete. Right?

Juneteenth is celebrated in 1900 at Eastwoods Park in Austin, Texas. The holiday marks the day federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 to ensure that all enslaved people were freed, more than two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Austin History Center, Austin Public Library photo

Not quite.

Saturday, June 19, 2021, is a day in the United States known as “Juneteenth,” which commemorates the end of slavery in these United States and has just been established as a federal holiday.  The official end of slavery in the U.S. was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order that did not take effect until January 1863. But it wasn’t until June 19, 1865, that the order caught on in the state of Texas.

The Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately set the slaves free. The enslaved remained captive under control of the Confederacy, which was committed to maintaining a way of life that was based on the domination and inhumane treatment of Black people and the unpaid labor, torture, rape and murder that came with it. Why do people seem to get uncomfortable when we talk about the role Black people played in the founding of this nation? Somehow, simply acknowledging the legacy of slavery has come to be perceived as a threat and labeled as “divisive” and “going too far.”

Here are some facts from U.S. history: The first documented arrival of African slaves on this soil dates to 1619, marking the beginning of the most successful economy the world has ever known. That happened. The actual divisiveness was how whole families were divided and separated: mother from son and daughter and father from the entire family. It’s not the talking about that separation that makes it divisive.

What kinds of slaves were sold once the Africans were unloaded like cargo from the ships? Well, take your pick. One advertisement to sell slaves read, “To Be Sold: Negroes consisting of 39 men, 15 boys, 24 women, and 16 girls.” In the United States, these Black people were considered good to work in the fields as well as in the house depending on their gender, skin tone and body type.

But if one were looking to multiply one’s investment, that person might be interested in the flyer that read, “For Sale: A Negro Girl: Nearly 19 years of age. She is well-versed in all kinds of housework and she is a good spinster. It is believed she will particularly suit a farmer. She is a Slave.” For the record, a “spinster” was considered a woman unlikely to get married, so you can figure out what the ad was suggesting. But if you can’t, allow me to make it clear: The white male farmers would rape and impregnate young Black women to produce more offspring who were born into slavery.

Juneteenth is an opportunity to commemorate the ending of the brutality of slavery. However, it was not until about 100 years later, after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin was legally banned. And while it may have technically become illegal to discriminate by 1964, systemic discrimination had been deeply embedded and well documented for generations and still had – and continues to have – a significant impact on Black communities

Our own U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a worsening wage gap between Black and white Americans, and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics details a racial system of mass incarceration that targets Black people.

Commemorations and initiatives that focus on sharing a more comprehensive and brutally honest narrative about our complex history should not be viewed as a threat. Our responsibility as educators in the 21st century should not be to double down on historical inaccuracies and incomplete truths. Instead, we should face and examine our uncomfortable history so that we are a more informed and educated people.

Let’s continue to do the work. Happy Juneteenth to us all!

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