On June 17, President Biden signed a law memorializing June 19 and declaring it a federal holiday. The Act commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and informed enslaved African Americans that the Civil War had ended and they were free. Granger’s message came more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. highlighting the terrible injustice of keeping a group of enslaved Americans in chains in contravention of Lincoln’s order for their emancipation.
During the signing, an emotional Biden noted, “This is a day, in my view, of profound weight and profound power, a day in which we remember the moral stain, terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take.” Vice President Kamala Harris chimed in, claiming that designating 19th a federal holiday “makes an important statement.” “These are days when we as a nation have decided to stop and take stock, and often to acknowledge our history,” Harris contended.
There is nothing wrong with a nation acknowledging its past “sins”. Suggesting that slavery’s terrible toll continues to impact our country today enables a small group of those who feel disenfranchised to continue to resurrect the anguish and shame of slavery, encouraging the enraged vocal few to cast the rest of us perpetually as oppressors and themselves as victims.
Socioeconomic disparity is ugly and rampant in America. Poverty here is less the daily life-or-death struggle that it is elsewhere. Given the injustice of poverty that exists in the world’s most prosperous land, opportunities for people to make it to the higher rungs of the ladder regardless of class, caste, race, gender and religion still exist.
While our country has not entirely rid itself of color prejudice both covert and overt, this has not dissuaded people of color from all over the world to seek to emigrate to America. America is hardly alone in exploiting some races or classes to the benefit of others. What makes it special is that it is willing to rectify its past errors.
Instead of being damned as systemically racist, America needs to be viewed as systemically progressive. Backed by its Constitution and laws, it has managed to expand the scope of liberty and equality to include people of varied races, religious and sexual persuasion, and enabled new generations to prosper beyond their ancestors. Obama would not have been twice elected president if we were still living under slavery’s shadow or regime.
But leaving that aside, it is the June 19th Act’s title that makes an otherwise laudable step objectionable. Instead of calling it the Final End of Slavery Act, or Final Emancipation of All Slaves in America Act, the Democratic majority opted for a controversial title i.e., National Independence Day Act. This appears to establish two kinds of independence – one of slaves and the other of America.
A nation’s freedom is meant to be a unifier of a people, and it is wrong to perceive it as a one-sided race-specific experience. A nation rightly can have only one Independence Day to celebrate, and one moment in time when it unshackled itself from a foreign occupying power. Within a country, what happened to an individual group or territory that was forced to wait to become free of their owners or occupier much later can only be called the liberation day for that particular group or territory, not for the nation as a whole. In India, for instance, Goa and Portugal became free much after India did, but their liberation, though widely celebrated and acknowledged, is not referred to as a National Independence Day.
While it would have been more fitting for the June 19th Act to be called Liberation of All Slaves Day or Final End of Slavery Day, it would be unrealistic to expect the President and a Congress led by the Democrats to be so gracious. In these highly charged times, grace and graciousness are hard to come by. Political and intellectual classes assisted by the media and corporate entities are willing to play the race card, and to revisit and rewrite American history from the lens solely of race and its criticality to any portrayal of America. That stance is both wrong and oppressive, and as others have noted, amounts to reverse racism and black-on-white oppression.
Even given its warts, failings, and blemished history, America should remain a sparkling ode to freedom to all its citizens. Even as we acknowledge Juneteenth and respectfully honor the memory of those in Galveston who were callously oppressed for additional two years after slavery was formally ended, we need not do so by running down the cherished memory of July 4th and its singularity as a marker of this nation’s independence.
As July 4th approaches, let us prepare to celebrate it without fear of being called racist or white supremacist. Let us shed our fear of being cancelled out or threatened merely for raising a toast to America and to Freedom.
To recall Martin Luther King’s fitting appeal, “Let Freedom Ring”.