On June 18, 2021, President Joseph Biden signed legislation that made “Juneteenth,” the commemoration of the event on June 19, 1865, when enslaved African Americans in Texas were officially told that chattel slavery had ended, a federal holiday. At the White House ceremony, Biden expressed his hope that “all Americans can feel the power of this day, and learn from our history, and celebrate progress.” On social media and other information outlets, mini-history lessons titled “What is Juneteenth?” appeared overnight to educate those unfamiliar with the holiday. For many Black Americans, however, and particularly for Black Texans, Juneteenth has been celebrated for over 155 years. Acclaimed historian Annette Gordon-Reed contextualizes the national significance of this commemoration with her latest work, On Juneteenth, a poignant and incisive memoir that combines personal and familial memories of growing up in Conroe, a small East Texas town just north of Houston, with historical vignettes.
Appreciating the relevance of Juneteenth for the United States, according to Gordon-Reed, requires confronting the mythologized history and public image of the state where the holiday originated. Gordon-Reed wastes no time identifying and dismantling some of these stereotypes. In the first chapter, she makes the provocative claim that “the image of Texas has a gender and a race: ‘Texas is a White man’” (18). As compelling evidence, Gordon-Reed points to the main tropes of Texas in popular culture—the Rancher, the Cowboy, and the Oilman—popularized in films, TV, and commercials. Yet, Gordon-Reed argues, another important figure that characterizes the Lone Star State is missing from popular representations: “a figure who helped make Juneteenth necessary: the Slave Plantation Owner” (22). That depiction of Texas exposes its origin as a region envisioned by white immigrants with capitalist desires in the mid-nineteenth century as “an empire for slavery” (to paraphrase historian Randolph “Mike” Campbell). Moreover, it is this “creation story” of the state that has been downplayed or outright ignored in both the state and national consciousness. Gordon-Reed recalls that during her childhood, teachers insisted that students “remember the Alamo” while the subject of slavery in Texas “was presented as an unfortunate event that was to be acknowledged and quickly passed over” (27). These historical myopias and silences about Black life in Texas that she encountered while in school, however, serendipitously led Gordon-Reed to the field of history and shaped her approach to writing about complicated and painful topics in early America, including Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the subjects of her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Hemingses of Monticello.
Another pivotal event during Gordon-Reed’s childhood, described in chapter 2, illuminates the complicated history of Texas. In the first grade, she integrated her town’s school district. She remembers how supportive her teachers were even though she felt “the oddity of being on display” (39) as the only Black child in a sea of white faces. Nevertheless, the specter of anti-Black racism and violence in Montgomery County hung over the desegregation efforts in public education. Gordon-Reed recalls horrific crimes like the lynching of Bennett Jackson in 1885, the murder of Joe Winters in 1922, and the fatal shooting of Bob White in 1936, a mere twenty-five years before Gordon-Reed started elementary school (34-35). In each case, white Texans accused Black men of assaulting white women. Gordon-Reed recounts that the explanations her family members provided about these alleged “crimes” were quite different. “What to make of these counter narratives,” Gordon-Reed explains, “of course, is central to writing history” (37).
In later chapters, Gordon-Reed provides other alternatives to predominant “origin stories” of the United States such as Jamestown and Plymouth. For example, 1619 and the state of Virginia loom large in public memory when pinpointing the arrival of people of African descent to North America. But, as Gordon-Reed convincingly argues, this focus on British colonies limits “the imaginative possibilities of Blackness” (63). It is a historical gaze that privileges the Atlantic seaboard as the physical locus of early Black life and centers enslavement and captivity as the only options for Black people. To widen the scholarly landscape, Gordon-Reed shifts the reader’s vision from the “20 and odd negroes” that arrived as captives in what is now Virginia westward to sixteenth-century New Spain to recount the story of Estebanico, widely thought to be the first African to set foot in what is now Texas in November 1528, nearly eighty years before the English came to Jamestown in 1607. Estebanico served as a translator between Spanish invaders and the Indigenous people of the region and was also known to both groups as a respected “medicine man.”
Such accounts, Gordon-Reed recalls, were never mentioned in her classrooms and she wondered “what difference it might have made to our understandings about the enslaved to have a more fully realized example of one who displayed such perseverance and talent” (69). In this statement, Gordon-Reed advocates for a more expansive understanding of early Black life in Texas and North America, and for more nuanced interpretations of Blackness broadly. In our current era, when subjects like the teaching of critical race theory and slavery in classrooms is being challenged across the United States, and celebrations like Juneteenth are sometimes attacked as “divisive,” Gordon-Reed’s encouragement is a welcome call.
On Juneteenth is a model of what accessible, deeply researched, and beautiful public history scholarship should look like—all in one hundred and forty-nine pages, which is no small feat. One shortcoming is that the history of other non-white peoples, like Indigenous Americans in chapter four, do not receive the same nuanced, careful analysis as Black Americans do in the book. Her childhood remembrance of going to Six Flags Over Texas and description of an amusement park worker dressed as an “Indian Brave” rescuing a classmate who fell into the water as “[h]is straightened body put me in mind of an expertly tossed spear…The whole thing had the air of a synchronized dance” (78) does not reflect the care that has long characterized Gordon-Reed’s scholarship. In a book that so eloquently and effectively challenges our views of Texas exceptionalism and stereotypes of Blackness, and that acknowledges that “behind all the broad stereotypes about Texas is a story of Indians, settler colonialists, Hispanic culture in North America, slavery, race, and immigration” (14), this section is surprising. This objection notwithstanding, On Juneteenth should be required reading for anyone interested in this important commemoration, Texas history, and American history in general. As Gordon-Reed fittingly states, Juneteenth and the story of Texas is “the American story, told from this most American place” (14).