In 1562, 303 years before the first Juneteenth, John Hawkins left the shores of Queen Elizabeth’s England on a new venture. He left to go capture slaves in Africa and sell them in the Caribbean, thus setting in motion an American tragedy that still echoes today. England had colonies in hot and sweaty places and needed workers to grow things like sugar. Despite their best efforts, they could not produce enough convicts and indentured servants to do all the manual labor required to satisfy their collective sweet tooth. Africans, they believed, would be more productive in those circumstances than wispy, underfed Brits who ran afoul of the Crown. It was also the prevailing consensus back then that white people were biologically and morally superior to the African, and this order was ordained by God.
As England grew its empire, so grew its enthusiasm for using enslaved African labor. The British families who grew wealthy from the slave trade and slave labor could do it relatively discreetly since most of this part of British commerce occurred thousands of miles away from the grassy meadows of merry old England. They could refer to themselves as West Indian traders and West Indian planters, and it all sounded exotic and modern. It also precluded the milky and self-satisfied countenances of the aristocracy from cringing at the disconcerting crack of the lash while they enquired if their guests would like one lump or two in their tea.
As with all old-blood Southerners, my family was obsessed with knowing our own genealogy — with the not so secret hope of finding a direct line to nobility or royalty. The red dirt patches in the front yard and the poor man’s paint of whitewash on the clapboard siding of the farm house were a little more bearable when you might be the 15th great-granddaughter of a king. My family can trace some of our ancestors to the early 1600s in this country. Certainly some of them were yeoman farmers and indentured servants. A few came with their own wealth or a land grant from the Crown. I have read 17th, 18th and 19th century wills of my ancestors who bequeathed their slaves to their wives and children.
When my 18th century ancestors had enough of British arrogance, they left their wives and children and slaves to take up arms for our independence. But when the founding fathers were writing the Constitution, my ancestors would probably have been the first to howl at the prospect of freeing their slaves. After all, most of their wealth was tied up in land and chattel. As British citizens, they had already become addicted to the institution of slavery, and when they became Americans they couldn’t put the crack pipe down. After all, they grew up with their parents and grandparents telling them that white people were biologically and morally superior to the African, and this order was ordained by God.
Somewhere between America ratifying its constitution in 1788 and the British storming our capitol in 1812, the British got a conscience and decided that the slave trade was bad and that everyone just needed to stop doing it. In 1807, the British raised a pale and uncalloused hand to the world and said, “We’re sorry, but no more fresh stock for you. You must do the best you can with what you have.” And then they proceeded to try to stop everyone in the world from engaging in the slave trade. But really, slavery was still cool to the Brits. After all, they did fancy a sweet from time to time.
By the 1830s, England had decided that slavery was actually no longer cool and that slaves should be freed and reparations should be made. But the truth is, the reparations went to the British slaveholders. In 1834, the British government transferred £20 million from its coffers to the slave owners to compensate them for their loss of chattel. This represented 40 percent of the total government expenditures for that year. This would be about £17 billion pounds, or $23 billion in our own currency. The British taxpayers finally finished paying off the bonds for this in 2015.
As for the freed slaves, they had to spend the next four years working 45 unpaid hours a week for their former masters to compensate them for their own manumission. I guess this seemed like the most sensible thing to do. After all, white people were biologically and morally superior to the African, and this order was ordained by God. And civil wars are just ghastly and make for very awkward garden parties.
So by the time our Civil War was about to break out, my ancestors were crystal clear on the fact that most of their wealth was tied up in land and chattel. I daresay that all of them had personally spoken to a relative who was alive during the American Revolution. And all of them had been told by their parents and grandparents that white people were biologically and morally superior to the African, and this order was ordained by God. I’m sure many of them were spoiling for a fight.
So fast forward to January 1, 1863. Lincoln emancipated the slaves but left it to the slave owners to tell their property about their freedom. In Texas, 250,000 slaves labored for another two and a half years beyond their own manumission because nobody saw fit to tell them otherwise. But on June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, the commander of the District of Texas, issued General Order No. 3, which informed the good people of Texas that slavery in the United States had come to an end:
The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection therefore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.
Forever after, the day would be celebrated by African Americans as Juneteenth.
Formerly enslaved people at a 1900 Juneteenth celebration in Texas
The 99 years that passed between the first Juneteenth and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were awash with outrage, indignation and lament over the loss of status white people felt for the good old days when everything and everybody were in their proper places. While little old white ladies researched their noble and royal lineages, the oppressed labor of free black men and women allowed them a shabby and hollow simulacrum of how they believed their ancestors lived.
From one generation to the next, white children were told by their parents and grandparents that white people were biologically and morally superior to the African, and this order was ordained by God. They were told these stories at the same time their parents and grandparents told them fairy tales about heroes and endangered princesses. And Santa Claus.
Once a child endures the trauma of learning the truth about Santa Claus, other revelations follow soon enough: There is no happily ever after. Good guys don’t always win in the end. These are harsh realizations that sit like bitter ash in the back of the nose and throat. But the wedding industry has created an empire based on the desire of every little girl to be a princess, even if it is just for a day. And movies don’t become blockbusters if the bad guys prevail and the heroes suffer the ignominy of defeat forevermore.
The dirty little secret of bigotry is that is serves as a psychological safety net for white children and the adults they will become. For a white child, it doesn’t matter how low you and your white trash family fall in the eyes of white society, because at the end of the day you are irrefutably and irrevocably superior to any black person alive. When an idea like that is fixed so indelibly in the minds of children, and bolstered by the adults around them, that belief can be harder to supplant than any sparkly notions they were fed about heroes and princesses. And when you are feeling down and out, exerting your natural born superiority can take the edge off.
Racism is taught to us by people we love and who love us in return. Racism makes white people feel safe and secure. Therefore, racism is going to be around for a very long time.
In 2010, two British researchers started digging into that list of slave holders who were compensated in 1834. They took their findings, created a database and made it public, showing the name of every beneficiary of this act and the extent of their human holdings. I hear tell that there was no small amount of gasping and pearl clutching as one proud Brit after another found surnames similar to their own listed among those who were made whole for their losses. Welcome to the club, y’all. Your dues are paid up and your membership lasts forever.
This week, finally, our own blessed country created a national holiday in remembrance of Juneteenth. Hallelujah. It’s about time. We should never forget. I don’t know if this country will ever make reparations to the people of African descent whose lives, property and opportunities were stolen from them generation after generation. If we do, I hope we portion off a large amount of that number, make two copies of an invoice, march them straight to the black lacquered door of No. 10 Downing Street in London and hand whoever lives there one copy. The second copy can go to whoever is living at Buckingham Palace.