Creative Sensemaker #4
The fourth instalment of Creative Sensemaker, a new cultural series by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
By Matt d’Ancona Above image: Miss Juneteenth (courtesy of Vertical Entertainment) Friday 19 June, 2020 Long read
In 2020, this celebration of Black freedom has greater resonance than ever. The world is still reeling from the murder of George Floyd on 25 May, statues are tumbling, and Black Lives Matter continues its rise from activist hashtag to full-blown global movement.
Juneteenth (a blend of ‘June‘ and ‘nineteenth’) is a bittersweet day for African-Americans, in that it symbolises both emancipation and the postponement of justice.
On 19 June 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union Army rode into Galveston, Texas, and told the enslaved that they had been freed. This was, please note, more than two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1 January 1863.
The first Juneteenth, therefore, was both a historic moment of collective liberation and a deeply symbolic outrage. It marked a collective moment of freedom, but one that had been scandalously delayed by the White supremacists of the American South.
In 1968, the anniversary was given even greater significance. In the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination on 4 April, the Poor People’s Campaign gathered in Washington. And, on 19 June, his widow, Coretta Scott King, and Ralph Abernathy, the President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, spoke in his memory to a huge crowd. It stretched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial.
This year, Juneteenth has been given fresh poignancy by another recent murder. This time, in Minneapolis, captured on cellphones, a ghastly eight minutes and 46 seconds that have sparked a worldwide movement of protest.
As if on cue, Donald Trump has stepped in to say the wrong thing, too. With extraordinary crassness, the President was planning to hold a campaign rally on Juneteenth. And in Tulsa, Oklahoma – the scene of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, one of the worst such atrocities in US history.
Even President Trump had to concede under pressure that this was a bad idea, and postponed the event. But, for good measure, he claimed to The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that ‘I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous… It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.’
This is, of course, absolute nonsense. Juneteenth is officially recognised by 47 states and the District of Columbia (only the Dakotas and Hawaii have held out). Now more than ever, it deserves to be a national federal holiday – and to be celebrated outside America, too.
You can find out more about what’s going on and how you can donate to racial justice causes here and here. #IAmJuneteenth #DREAMBIG.
Meanwhile, here are a few tips from us:
Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison (Kindle)
Written over 40 years and published posthumously in 1999, Ellison’s novel is an incomplete masterpiece – 368 pages distilled from 2,000. It is a panoramic exploration of racial history in America, founded on a compelling premise. What if a supposedly White, race-baiting Senator, Adam Sunraider, had in fact, been ‘a little boy of indefinite race’, named Bliss, raised by a Black jazz musician-turned-minister – Alonzo ‘Daddy’ Hickman?
The Warmth Of Other Suns: The Epic Story Of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (Kindle)
Perhaps the greatest account of the Great Migration of Black Americans from the South to the West, Midwest, Northeast.
We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates
An essential collection of essays, framed by Barack Obama’s presidency, exploring multiple aspects of the African-American experience. It also includes the author’s groundbreaking 2014 The Atlantic article on the case for reparations.
The Black Book edited by Toni Morrison
An extraordinary collection of historical documents, images and facsimiles, first compiled by Morrison in 1974, including material from 1619 to the 1940s.
There is a whole genre of ‘Juneteenth Jazz’, which you can explore here.
This year’s Juneteenth Music Festival, featuring DJ Jazzy Jeff, can be streamed online.
Lift Every Voice: A Juneteenth Special festival is hosted by Charlamagne Tha God, and features Common, Vic Mensa, TI and Leon Bridges. Find out more here.
There are some great Juneteenth-inspired Spotify playlists: here, here and here, for example.
Miss Juneteenth (VOD, coming soon)
Well received at Sundance, Channing Godfrey Peoples’ debut feature is set in Fort Worth, Texas. It plots the aspirations of Turquoise (Nicole Beharie), a former pageant queen, now single mother, for her 15-year-old daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), to follow in her footsteps as Miss Juneteenth.
Black-ish Season 4, Episode 1 (Amazon Prime)
An episode of the hit sitcom dedicated to an argument over the racism of Columbus Day and the need to take the Juneteenth celebrations seriously. Laurence Fishburne is, as ever, especially good.
The Meaning Of Juneteenth (YouTube)
A VICE News discussion with Salamishah Tillet, Professor of African American Studies, Rutgers University, and Ianne Fields Stewart, founder of The Okra Project, which supports Black trans people.
History Of Juneteenth (YouTube)
An Allen Public Library presentation by Dr Shennette Garrett-Scott on the history of the holiday.
Artists 4 Black Lives
A special online event, organised by performing artist Eboni Muse, streamed from San Diego.
Red food and drink – from watermelon salad to strawberry lemonade – has long been part of Juneteenth heritage. It’s symbolic of Black people’s resilience, power and spirituality. This year, the Juneteenth Cookout Takeover has collated a fantastic variety of recipes and cocktail ideas from African-American chefs and culinary experts.
Langston Hughes (Getty)
Maya Angelou (Getty)
The reading of poems is a core element of the rich culture that has arisen around Juneteenth celebrations. Especially Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues (1925).
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.
And Maya Angelou, Still I Rise (1978).
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Have a peaceful, happy week.
Editor and Partner