Today is Juneteenth. Specifically, today is the first anniversary of Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday and the 157th anniversary of the reading of General Order No. 3 by Union Army general Gordon Granger. This was the order which served as the Texas version of the Emancipation Proclamation and therefore was the official grant of freedom for Texan slaves. The celebration of the holiday began as early as the late 1860s in Galveston, Texas, and has spread outward to every state in the US and, more recently, to Mexico, where descendants of Black Seminoles honor their ancestors’ flight from slavery in the Antebellum years.
Juneteenth celebrates freedom for the formerly enslaved, but it also is a day to celebrate African-American arts and culture more generally, particularly food and music. As this holiday has Texan roots, rodeo is often a prominent feature, as are barbecues and food trucks hawking everything from Cajun shrimp to collard greens.
This year, Juneteenth falls on a Sunday, but as it is now a federal holiday, banks and government offices will be closed on Monday the 20th. Unfortunately, that is about the extent of the celebration here in Vermont, though Angela Davis will be speaking in Burlington at a UV Medical Center panel discussion. It’s not even a holiday for state office employees, thanks to a complicated (and, I think, somewhat flimsy) excuse involving holiday pay and collective bargaining.
Also this year, there has been a strong push to finally establish an official governmental body to study the issue of reparations. Representative John Conyers Jr. has been introducing a bill, HR40, every year since 1989 — just to examine the problem and its potential solutions. Named for the promise made to the newly emancipated of “40 acres and a mule” to help set former slaves on their own sturdy feet, US House Resolution 40 would establish a federal commission to study the multifarious impacts of slavery and then recommend proposals for restitution. HR40 does not authorize payments or, indeed, any actions; it only creates a formal investigative body. Yet for 30 years, despite the dogged tenacity of Representative Conyers, the bill failed to even make it to the House floor for a vote. However, under this 117th Congress, HR40, introduced by Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas, because Conyers retired in 2017), has finally advanced — with over 200 House members committed to its support. If House leadership would give the bill the final push of their support, it would likely pass. Alternatively, some are are calling on President Biden to work with House supporters of HR40 to set up the same commission by executive order.
For obvious reasons, many feel like the window of opportunity to address the long legacy of slavery is fast closing. The National African-American Reparations Commission (NAARC), Human Rights Watch (#ReparationsNow), the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), and many other organizations and prominent individuals joined together to try to persuade President Biden to take this important step toward racial justice before Juneteenth of this year. I do not see evidence that this happened, though perhaps there has been progress behind the scenes. Still, though I signed my name to several petitions begging the President to do something, I am not convinced that HR40 will be effective even if it does pass nor if Biden creates the commission by executive order. This is a plan to study the problem, not a plan to actually address the problem. It seems to me that by the time that study is completed, our narrow window of opportunity will very likely be slammed shut by the rising tide of racist fascism. As with many of our current crises, we no longer have the luxury of time to study this problem. We need to act.
I am not the right person to write on reparations. Happily, I don’t need to be as Ta-Nehisi Coates has done that work already, with an exhaustive and impactful article in The Atlantic in 2014 and a follow-up five years later in The New Yorker. More recently, “the case for reparations” has been put forward by Bill McKibben in The Flag, The Cross and The Station Wagon and in much of Chuck Collins’s writing. But as we are today celebrating the freedom of those who gave their lives to build this country and fast approaching the anniversary of this country’s freedom from English taxation and regulation, I will say this: today, there is no question that reparations are necessary and justified. This is something we must do. It is the right thing to do. It is also the only thing we can do to repair the damages and finally make this country live up to its foundational myths of “liberty and justice for all”.
Moreover, when addressed in tandem with land rights and rematriation (for perspective, see here, here, and here), reparations is one of the few things that will have meaningful positive effects on human-caused biophysical collapse. Forcing those with multigenerational privilege and wealth to repay their debts to those whose labor, lives and homes were stolen to create that privilege and build that wealth will be a significant check on extractive capitalism — not just in the US, but globally. And not only will it slow the race to the bottom and spread resources more equitably, there is also substantial evidence to show that Indigenous peoples, Black and Brown peoples, slaves and the descendants of slaves, those who have been tending to the needs of land and humanity for hundreds if not thousands of years, are the most able to address the regeneration of land and the healing of peoples that this planet so desperately needs. They have the skills, the knowledge, and the commitment to care to fix what this culture has destroyed. So the name — reparations — becomes doubly meaningful. In giving back what we have stolen, we repair our relationship with those we have deeply wronged, and in turn they repair the world that supports us all.
In my view, this is a win-win-win-win-win…
But then I see things differently because I don’t have much wealth and privilege.
To those who do, today of all days it is time to recognize that you owe reparations. Your wealth, your status, your place in society, these are not the result of anything you have done nor any merit of your own, nor of your ancestors. Your privilege is built on stolen lives. This country, this culture that has rewarded you so richly, is founded upon slavery and genocide. And this is not a historical problem, a mere embarrassment of ancestry. This is now. The ramifications are pervasive and extensive and are very much still destroying lives today. This is the root of most of our cultural and biophysical disasters. And this is just… unjust. You have what you have because many millions of others have nothing. You owe restitution.
There are many movements to divest wealth from extractive and polluting industries. Today, I would take that a step further down the road toward justice. It’s time to divest wealth from extractive and polluting culture. It’s time to spread resources and power evenly. It’s time to give back what was stolen. Don’t just take your money out of the investment bank that funds destructive business. Take it out of this culture of destruction entirely. Give that money to those you owe. Use it to buy land that you give to those who will care for it. Spend it on housing and infrastructure in the neighborhoods that wealth has neglected. Pay it back. And pay it forward. Divest from all that destroys and invest in reparations.
It is Juneteenth. It is time to make good on the promise of freedom.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022