Honoring Juneteenth Includes Assuming Responsibility For America’s Racial History
If Republican opponents of Critical Race Theory continue to sanitize this history, then our ongoing effort to form a more perfect Union will only further stall.
June 16, 2021 at 2:30 pm
Opinions are the writer’s own and not those of Blavity's.
I love jigsaw puzzles. As a kid, my love of these elaborate puzzles bordered on obsession. Solving them was not only fun but also richly rewarding — as finding the correct interlocking pieces within a several-hundred-piece set required sustained focus and a keen eye. After solving a given puzzle, I would often revel in the accomplishment as if I had achieved some great feat of artistic endeavor.
My love of puzzles was limitless, which partly explains why I enjoy learning about history as much as I do. In my mind, the details of the past are like puzzle pieces strewn about humanity’s historical record; each event or polarizing figure is its own discrete puzzle piece that, once assembled, reveals a more complete picture of our past that can help guide us forward. As legislative bans on the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) continue to be enacted in Republican-led statehouses nationwide, however, a more complete, intellectually honest rendering of United States history seems far from achievable. With Juneteenth celebrations expected in cities nationwide, these Republican-led efforts to obscure the history of race and racism in America take on a new meaning in The Lone Star State.
On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with news that would abolish the institution of chattel slavery in the state.
“The people of Texas are informed,” read General Order No. 3, “that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
With the deliverance of this official decree, General Granger — more than two and a half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation — formally announced the emancipation of approximately 250,000 enslaved people across the state of Texas. Nearly six months later, the institution of slavery would be formally abolished with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Although accurate, this portrayal of the events of June 19 is largely incomplete. Missing from this depiction is the primacy of race, and racism, in the creation and maintenance of the institution of chattel slavery. More curiously though, this rendering of history makes no mention of America’s embrace of white supremacy, the driving force behind this "peculiar institution" and the subsequent caste system that persists well into the 21st century.
As chronicled by Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of the recently published *On Juneteenth, the omission of race in the teaching of such history is at odds with the historical record.
“[Race] isn’t some newly discovered fad topic. Race is right there in the documents — official and personal. It would take a concerted effort not to consider and analyze the subject,” writes Gordon-Reed.
Yet, Republican members of the Texas legislature recently made such an effort, passing legislation that would effectively bar public school teachers statewide from engaging in classroom discussion on the history of race and racism in America. This legislation was introduced by Texas Representative Steve Toth, who defended the bill as a necessary measure to avoid “burden[ing] our kids with guilt for racial crimes they had nothing to do with.”
This “white guilt” defense, which has also been employed by Republican opponents of CRT in Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Tennessee, is reprehensible in two central ways. First, CRT opponents fail to provide any empirical evidence to support their position that a fair and honest reading of our nation’s racial history burdens children. Insofar that the learning of this particular history strengthens the development of a child’s wider civic knowledge — and recent research suggests that it does — the misrepresentation of America’s racial past not only renders students woefully unprepared to adequately navigate an increasingly interconnected world, but also threatens the very foundation of our Constitutional democracy.
Second, the foregoing defense conflates guilt and responsibility — two conceptually related, but practically distinct, terms. Guilt is what we feel when we have done something wrong. Responsibility is what we assume when we feel compelled to help right a wrong. The former is a product of the harm we have caused, while the latter is a product of the character we possess.
This distinction brings to mind a relevant and powerful quote written by the incomparable James Baldwin: “I'm not interested in anybody's guilt. Guilt is a luxury that we can no longer afford. I know you didn't do it, and I didn't do it either, but I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it, too, for the very same reason … Anyone who is trying to be conscious must begin to dismiss the vocabulary which we've used so long to cover it up, to lie about the way things are.”
If Republican opponents of Critical Race Theory continue to sanitize this history — if cruelty is, in fact, the point — then our ongoing effort to form a more perfect Union will only further stall. If what is past is truly prologue, however — which I suggest it is — then Republicans have another option. Instead of placing party and fear before country, Republican leaders should trust in our teachers’ ability to teach — and our students’ ability to learn — all of American history. Rather than fashioning bad faith arguments out of whole cloth, Republican leaders should focus their attention on actual issues — like equitably and adequately funding our nation's public schools.
Doing so will not only offer students an honest account of America’s racial past, but will also provide the next generation with an additional, critical piece to our national puzzle. And, given the recent attack on the seat of American democracy, the need for these puzzle pieces could not be greater as we desperately search for our national path forward.