On Juneteenth, Annette Gordon-Reed’s blend of historical narrative and personal memoir, illuminates the lives of Black Texans throughout history, beginning with the 1500s and up to the present. At the center of this narrative is Juneteenth ̶ the annual celebration of the abolition of slavery in the US.
By Sofija Popovska
In the 1500s, Estebanico, the first ever African to explore North America, stepped ashore in the vicinity of what would later become Galveston, Texas. Three centuries later, on June 19, 1865, Gordon Granger, a general in the Army of the United States of America, arrived at Galveston with the mission to impose some degree of order in a turmoil-ridden, turbulent post-Civil-War society and to announce General Order No.3 — that all slaves were finally free. A few additional decades brought Annette Gordon-Reed’s great-grandfather, seeking to support his family, to Galveston as a seasonal worker on the wharves. Life paths converge, new footsteps are laid over old ones, and voices long written out of history are heard echoing out of the pages of On Juneteenth, Annette Gordon-Reed’s love letter to her home state of Texas.
This delightful collection of essays that illuminate episodes of Black Texan life throughout history speaks the language of tough love – factual, revealing, discerning. Gordon-Reed chides her home state for the naivete of a »perpetual adolescent on the way to some inevitably bright future«. However, Gordon-Reed is, above all, not a demagogue, and a solution is proposed along with the criticism: »recognizing – -though not dwelling on – tragedy and the role it plays […] is a sign of maturity.« Note the word »tragedy«: On Juneteenth is a story about Black Texans; it seeks to record pain and injustice, along with the slow, arduous trudge to emancipation. However, this is not a book about pain; instead, it is a monument to the lives of Black people – with moments of joy, familial love, and success to supplement depictions of adversity. Note, also, the »not dwelling on« – the author stays true to her word: On Juneteenth refuses to wallow in both a thematic and structural way.
A Minimalist Style
First: the form. Much like its elegant black hardcover, kept bare save for golden writing on its spine, On Juneteenth boasts a tastefully minimal style of composition, which does not detract from, but rather accentuates, its complex, heterogenous thematic makeup. It is a small, tightly-packed book, composed of vignettes that combine personal memoir with historical data. The vignettes are grouped into essays that tackle key themes relating to Texas, such as its first African inhabitants, episodes surrounding the Alamo, the origin of Juneteenth, and several episodes involving Native Americans. The style is purposefully kept factual, simple, and laconic enough to put a Latin aphorism to shame. Nothing is dragged out, not a single scene is wallowed in, and so every episode becomes a sharp pang and a forceful fragment in the dynamic staccato of various events that culminates in the image of Juneteenth – an abbreviation of June 19th, 1865, the day when the Emancipation Proclamation was put into effect, freeing African-American citizens of their status as enslaved. However, the few gripes that could be had with the book emerge from several stylistic choices.
Firstly, the memoir and historical narrative blend, while a thematically effective format for relaying the inadvertent dialogue between past and present that occurs despite social (un-) awareness, creates several jarring transitions. For example, the author’s recollection of the reason for her preference of friendships with boys over those with girls being paired back-to-back with the unjust and illegal assassination of a Black man in a courtroom inevitably provokes a tangible feeling of disparity. Gordon-Reed confesses to having been dismayed at the »one day I like you, the next day I don’t like you« attitude which seemed to prevail among girls at her school. This confession, following hot on the heels of »Ruby Cochran’s husband walked to the front of the courtroom and shot White in the back of the head« is most certainly a rough transition. This sharpness of turns is definitely exacerbated by the brevity and informational density of the book.
Another small stylistic flaw is the use of commonplace sayings, such as: »That is a cliche, but like all cliches, it contains a basic truth«. However, the reader whose body naturally produces a vexed nasal exhale in response to such utterances needn’t worry too much: like the above mentioned sharp turns, stylistic blunders, or, rather, blemishes, are extremely scarce. Not only that, but the style is exactly right for what the book is: rather than pontificating, it conveys. Gordon-Reed’s handling of the book’s themes is similarly tasteful: it balances scrupulous observation with the unabashed admission of complexity.
A Maximalist Thematic Range
On Juneteenth is an open question, not a catechism. A reader who expects to be spoon-fed a set of opinions will be sorely disappointed. The author presents a set of events – events left out of a nationalist, whitewashed history – but she doesn’t explain, judge, or qualify. On Juneteenth creates awareness of purposefully and accidentally overlooked stories, but these stories resist being molded into a single, straightforward narrative.
As the single Black student in a classroom of white peers, Gordon-Reed recalls being well-loved by teachers. Still, she poses the question: what would be the effect produced by a student with less of an even-temper, and without a fancy wardrobe? The end of segregated schools allowed for the exploration of such questions—and while unquestionably a triumph, Gordon-Reed does not shirk the discussion of the losses that accompanied such a valuable victory. Classes with a mix of Black and white students were routinely given to white teachers – depriving Black children of adult Black role-models who had been available in all-Black schools. The author’s mother, a teacher herself, saw a loss in the behind-the-scenes life of an educator when transferred to a white school – a staff room filled with white colleagues who, while respectful, were significantly less able to form a personal connection with her.
Gordon-Reed’s father, a lover of western movies, rooted for Native American characters – a logical decision based on the expectation of solidarity against the white oppressor. However, Gordon-Reed notes that many Native Americans both owned and sold Black slaves. Moreover, while white settlers and their aggressive, inhumane dealings with people of color stand out like a sore thumb on the pages of history, the political landscape in the background of this complicated relationship had been far too muddled by armed conflicts between various groups to identify a single oppressor at the time. These two examples are a minute portion of the complexity that is laid bare in On Juneteenth. Gordon-Reed presents too many variables for even the possibility of a full summary to exist. Nonetheless, an admission of complexity and a refusal of a homogenous narrative does not imply an invitation to forego connecting the present to the past. In the memoir portion of the book, on the same soil that had borne numerous injustices decades prior, a school-aged Gordon-Reed is faced with racist remarks poorly disguised as playground insults.
Remember the bit about not wallowing? Gordon-Reed, as alluded to earlier, does not limit herself to accounts of tragedies. She also documents joy: the joy of emancipation is given space in her book along with the joy of preparing tamales for Juneteenth with the women in her family. Along with joy, Gordon-Reed professes her unapologetic love for her home state. Apposite to the warmth suggested by its original name, Te-Haas, the Caddo word for »the friends«, Texas is the home of her first family connections. Love, however, »does not require taking an uncritical stance towards the object of one’s affections,« as Gordon-Reed aptly states.
And so, On Juneteenth is a perfect mixture of tragedy, joy, pride, and indignation, intertwining to form a loving realism that is both educational and moving. »I hope I’ve achieved the proper equilibrium,« is the concluding phrase of the book’s Coda, conveying Gordon-Reed’s aim to provide a »clear-eyed assessment« of the many faces of Texan history. Indeed, On Juneteenth is a resounding success in matters of balance, and highly recommended to anyone who wishes to learn and immerse themselves in the countless paths on the road to Juneteenth.