Take a moment to think about if you learned about Juneteenth in school. Chances are, you probably first heard about Juneteenth last summer in the news when the George Floyd protests ignited the demand for recognition of Black lives and stories in America. Ironically, Juneteenth is connected to one of the most important events in US history: The Civil War.
Depending on which state you grew up in, we may have different ideas on The Civil War. (So much for standardized learning, huh?) If you grew up in the South or Texas, you may have learned that this war was a fight for states’ rights. Alternatively, you may have learned that the war was fought because the states disagreed on what the American standard should be regarding slavery. Point-blank, there was the question if Americans should still buy and sell Black people following the Mexican-American War. The states disagreed on the legality of slavery, and therefore, the American Civil War commenced.
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation. If you paid attention in history class, you would know that this decree did not completely end slavery. According to the National Archives, the documents stated “‘that all persons held as slaves’ within the rebellious states ‘are, and henceforth shall be freed.'” This means that even though the war had ended, only slaves in the South were freed. And while slavery wasn’t as prominent in the North or past Texas, this doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist. So imagine: The Civil War has ended, but not everyone will receive this news at the same time. For Texans, it took two years and six months before a Union General proclaimed freedom from slavery. June 19th immediately became the unofficial end to slavery in the US. (The Thirteenth Amendment completely abolished the practice later that year, in December 1865.)
For such a monumental moment in US history, why do Americans not learn about Juneteenth in school? The Black Lives Matter movement fought every day to get Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday and as of June 17th, Joe Biden signed the new federal holiday into law. However, the fight for the celebration and recognition of Black Americans is not yet over. Attitudes toward Juneteenth will not change immediately, so we need to continue to encourage schools to broaden their textbook offerings regarding one of the most historically significant days in American history.
Bookstr interviewed six Black authors on their recommended Juneteenth reads and asked them why Juneteenth is important to not only the Black community in America but to all Americans—and why we don’t learn about it in school.
Leslie Gray Streeter is an author, journalist, and speaker. Her memoir, Black-Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books with Words Like “Journey” in the Title, was published by Little, Brown and Company in March 2020 and has been featured on The Today Show and NPR.
“I’d say that Juneteenth isn’t taught in school for the same reason that things like the 1619 Project or any sort of diversity initiatives are so controversial – because we still have not been able to reconcile a love for and connection to this country and the promise of its founding documents with the truth that those documents did not include everyone, and that pain, death, and heartbreak was woven into our history. It challenges these myths that we have been told and so we can’t talk about it. As your query implies, awareness of these things has to start when we are young, so that these truths are a part of our knowledge of our own history from the start. The book that I would recommend is Juneteenth for Mazie by Floyd Cooper, a kid’s book that relates, gently but succinctly, how we are connected to that history.”
Celeste Headlee is an award-winning journalist, professional speaker, and author. She is a regular guest host on NPR and American Public Media, and Her TEDx Talk sharing 10 ways to have a better conversation has over 23 million total views. Her newest book, Speaking of Race: Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Racism – and How to Do It will be released in November 2021.
“I am a Black Jew. My Jewish family used to say, ‘Never forget,’ because they knew that forgetting the horrors of the Holocaust meant lowering our guard, making it less likely that we could prevent another massacre. I feel the same about chattel slavery and the Civil War. It’s important that we preserve the stories and the history, that Americans understand what was at stake and how so-called “good people” can commit horrific acts of cruelty and savagery. While Juneteenth is a celebration, it’s also the release of a held breath, the relief of knowing that the worst is finally over. On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon Reed is perhaps the most important book on the holiday that I’ve ever read. I hesitated to include it in my list because I assume that everyone will mention it. It’s a collection of powerful essays, part history and part memoir, from a writer with long, deep roots in Texas. It is essential reading, not just for Juneteenth, but for any time of the year. Also, A Day for Rememberin’, a children’s book by Leah Henderson, illustrated by Floyd Cooper. It tells the story of the very first Memorial Day in 1865, one month before General Granger told the people of Texas that slavery had been abolished. While this book is for kids, there are archival materials in the back, showing pictures of that first Memorial Day in South Carolina, with crowds of Blacks and whites celebrating the victory and the sacrifice of the soldiers who fought.”
Dr. Kimberly Brown Pellum is an author, professor, and the founder of The History Consultants LLC, a boutique agency that functions as a vehicle funneling academically sound history to the public and private sectors. Currently, she serves as program coordinator for the Smithsonian’s Africatown Project and the history faculty at the Florida A&M University. Her most recent book, Black Beauties: African American Pageant Queens in the Segregated South, was published in February 2020.
“In the current climate, Juneteenth gives us an opportunity to pause and reflect. What is freedom? And for whom? There is really no other group of people who have pushed this country to be better and do better. One of my favorite quotes is from activist Fannie Lou Hamer who said, ‘I question America?’ We must continue to ask the hard questions that will truly set us free. I also hope that more African Americans will begin to dive into their local histories and embrace the distinct legacy of race and emancipation in their own home states. Annette Gordon-Reed’s On Juneteenth is wonderful as both a history and memoir. She covers exploration, colonization, slavery, and the many ill-informed stereotypes about southern Black people reiterated by false narratives including Juneteenth being about enslaved Texans ‘being last to know about emancipation.’ I also really like Envisioning Emancipation by photographer Deborah Willis. It’s really about how African Americans represented themselves and their communities, which is particularly refreshing given the media’s long history of maligning Black images. I specialize in visual culture as well, so I really appreciate the effort Willis puts into curating such meaningful photographs which include Juneteenth celebrations, parades, women who adorn themselves with such elegance.”
Don Tate is the award-winning illustrator of numerous books for children, including Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton, for which he won the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award. He is also a co-contributor to the Brown Bookshelf, a blog designed to raise awareness of African Americans’ writing for young readers. His newest children’s book, Pigskins to Paintbrushes: The Story of Football-Playing Artist Ernie Barnes, will be published by Abrams on August 17, 2021.
“Juneteenth is American history. History can serve as a guidebook for better understanding today and for navigating the future. Many folks today are working hard to distort or to erase certain parts of that guidebook, especially the un-pretty parts, which is why I believe it is important than ever to recognize and remember the true stories of African American people and our place throughout history. At its heart, Juneteenth is about community—the Black community coming together to celebrate and remember our stories, American history. In Juneteenth for Mazie, written and illustrated by Floyd Cooper, young readers will learn about the origins of the celebration through the eyes of young Mazie. She is feeling grumpy, she wants to stay up late and eat cookies. Instead, she gets the bedtime story of her life—the celebration story of Juneteenth. I loved the way Cooper continued that celebration story beyond June 19th, 1865, recalling Black triumphs throughout [the] years to follow. Not to toot my own horn, but I also think William Still And His Freedom Stories: Father Of The Underground Railroad is an important picture book to remember at Juneteenth. The book is not specifically about Juneteenth, but it covers the topic of slavery in the United States and tells the story of a man, a top conductor on the Underground Railroad system. William Still documented the stories of hundreds of freedom-seeking people whose stories would have otherwise been lost to history. In a spread towards the end of the book, I tried to capture the jubilee that Black people would have felt upon learning about the end of slavery and celebrating their newfound liberty.”
Mary-Frances Winters is the founder and president of The Winters Group Inc. She has been helping clients create inclusive environments for over three decades. She was named a top ten diversity trailblazer by Forbes and a diversity pioneer by Profiles in Diversity Journal and is the recipient of the prestigious ATHENA Award, as well as the Winds of Change Award conferred by the Forum on Workplace Inclusion. Her most recent novel, Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit is available now.
“It is important to celebrate Juneteenth because it is a part of our history that has essentially been erased. All of the resistance and opposition to critical race theory is intended to continue to erase the painful and sordid history that continues to marginalize and Oppress. We cannot ever hope to achieve equity and justice until we acknowledge and correct systemic racism. My book [recommendation] is Caste by Isabel Wilkerson because it gives a global understanding of racism from the perspective of other systems of oppression such as the caste system in India and the German holocaust.”
Tamara Winfrey-Harris writes about race and gender and the ways they intersect with politics, pop culture, and current events. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Cosmopolitan, and other media. Her latest book, Dear Black Girl: Letters from Your Sisters on Stepping into Your Power was published by Berrett-Koehler in March 2021.
“Knowing the true history of Juneteenth helps Americans better understand the experiences of not just enslaved people, but their descendants, too. My great-grandparents were all born in the South less than 20 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. One as early as 1872. This story is MY family story. Understanding Juneteenth also helps us understand the history of this country, the Civil War, and President Abraham Lincoln more clearly. Because, understand, this is American history. You cannot understand this country without fully understanding the triumphant and tragic stories of all the people in it. You certainly cannot forge a strong future if you fail to assess honestly where you have been. This Juneteenth, I encourage readers to explore the ways Black women have fought–are still fighting–for their freedom. Pick up: The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois by Honoree Fannone Jeffers. A beautiful rendering of Black girlhood and family legacy. Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat by Khalisa Rae. Poetry to name and exorcize what has haunted Black women for centuries. No Thanks: Black, Female, and Living in the Martyr-Free Zone by Keturah Kendrick. One Black woman’s journey away from the prison of ‘proper womanhood.'”
Click the above links to learn more and support these phenomenal authors and their work. And be sure to expand your reading lists to include the authors’ recommended books about Juneteenth.