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Celebrating Juneteenth and the End of Slavery in the US

by Penne J. Laubenthal

"This is the use of memory/ For liberation -- not less of love but expanding/ Of love beyond desire and so liberation/ From the future as well as the past."  T. S Eliot, Four Quartets

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when slaves in Galveston, Texas, were the last to find out that the Civil War was over and that they were free. In recent years, Juneteenth has become an occasion to reflect on the death of slavery, the meaning of freedom and African-American history. Juneteenth, is an American holiday celebrated by people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. The word Juneteenth is a portmanteau (a word formed by blending two or more other words.). In this case, Juneteenth is a blend of the words June and the words eighteenth and nineteenth, .

The actual Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22nd of 1862, but it had little impact on the ordinary life of slaves. Nearly three years later, on June 18th of 1865,  Union troops arrived in Texas to enforce the law and on June 19th declared that the slaves were indeed free. On the 19th, former slaves rejoiced in the streets and the following year a celebration was held to commemorate that day. (photo of statue in Galveston)

Now Juneteenth is recognized as a state holiday in 31 of the states. The 2009 Wells’Built Florida Juneteenth Jazz and Music Festival was held Saturday, June 19th, at the Lake Eola Park in Orlando, FL,  to celebrate the traditional African-American holiday marking the end of slavery. Free to the public, the music festival — features gospel, jazz hip hop, and rhythm and blues. The Juneteenth Jazz and Music Festival is organized by the Wells'Built Museum of African-American History & Culture and the Association to Preserve African-American Society, History and Tradition, Inc. The music festival has been part of the Juneteenth observances for about 10 years, said museum director Derrick Catlin. (The Orlando Sentinel, June 18, 2009)

There are celebrations of Juneteenth all over the United States, including the Ralph Ellison Library in Oklahoma City. Ralph Ellison, whose first novel Invisible Man won the National Book Award, died in 1994,, but he also wrote a novel which was edited by his executor after his death and published posthumously in 1999. It was entitled Juneteenth. Michiko  Kakutani wrote the following in the New York Times on May 25, 1999 :

"Over the years, Ralph Ellison's unfinished second novel has assumed the status of a literary myth. His first novel, Invisible Man, published in 1952, established him unequivocally as a modernist master, and over the next four decades he labored to produce a follow-up to that masterpiece. In 1966 a fire at his home destroyed a portion of his manuscript, and during the ensuing years there were reports that the work in progress was slowly changing shape, evolving into an increasingly ambitious saga that, in the words of Ellison's literary executor,John F. Callahan, was 'multifarious, multifaceted, multifocused, multivoiced, multitoned.'

"That manuscript was unfinished at Ellison's death in 1994, and from some 2,000 pages of typescript and printouts, Callahan extracted Juneteenth, the one narrative... that 'best stands alone as a single, self-contained volume.' Juneteenth contains hints of Ellison's conscious or unconscious determination to create a kind of bookend to Invisible Man...the story of a nameless black man's search for an identity in a world intent on defining him in terms of race. In doing so, it unfolded into a Dostoyevskian meditation on existential self-definition. Juneteenth, in contrast, focuses on a man's evasion of identity, as he attempts -- in vain, it turns out -- to erase his personal history by embracing racial hatred. However, the novel's epigraph from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, suggests that memory can redeem the past, that it can transfigure history, however painful, into another pattern. " (Michiko Kakutani)


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