On Juneteenth, idleness, legacy and history

My grandmother tells me that in Tennessee, this day, the day the slaves caught word that they had been freed by President Lincoln by executive proclamation in January 1863, was on August 8, 1865. But she’d add, still, we celebrate this day, June 19th, as Juneteenth, the official day as the end of intergenerational, black chattel slavery. The Root has a thorough accounting of the delay by the Union in spreading the ‘good news’. Melissa Harris-Perry also offers a history lesson in context for us:

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She zeroes in on a term I found equally curious in my studies back in the day: idleness. Idleness is an odd term, pejorative if you really want to dig in with the semantics of it. It’s the legacy language of race talk. Idleness, considered a bad virtue, often construed as a rationalization for the enslavement and subjugation of black skin. Think of it’s future applications in our modern era: idleness, laziness, blackness, poverty, unemployment.

In reading the Emancipation Proclamation TWO YEARS LATER to blacks in Galveston, Texas, the language of the document is fascinating. The presumptive assumptions in its clauses that implores a) masters to begin to pay their erstwhile slaves if they remained (labored) on the plantation and b) freedmen and women would stop all labor, recline under the shade tree as the lore so often described in those days about the motivations and virtues of African Americans and descendants. Hard work is a virtue. Idleness is not.

We’ve watched the history of this term be applied to mythological construction tied to race and class. Think: Welfare Queen.

My forebearers hail from Tennessee by way of Meridian, Mississippi by way of Portsmouth, Virginia by way of slave ship that birth at the harbor in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1790. A mix of research and oral tradition culled together like many Black American narratives. My grandmother does not mess with the internet, and in truest of oral traditions I read to her on my iPhone. the most amazing worker’s comp letter of all time:

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

Surely, there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

Labor and liberty; the struggle to balance both is as American as Juneteenth and apple pie.

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One Comment

  1. Posted June 19, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate this post and the story, and I anticipate more slavery and race stories in the coming months as we approach the Emancipation Proclamation celebrations in September. Feel it’s necessary to point out, however, that slavery is not gone, nor has it ever been gone, neither from the United States nor the rest of the world. I think it’s really important to include that information in any posts about the supposed “end of slavery.” For more information see freetheslaves.net

    Thanks for all you do!

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