I am John Hamilton McWhorter, the fifth. The first John Hamilton McWhorter was a slave. This Thursday is Juneteenth, when I might be inclined to celebrate the emancipation of John Hamilton McWhorter, the first.
Or not. Truth to tell, I have never quite gotten the hang of Juneteenth.
I suppose I should. What could be wrong, after all, with celebrating slaves in America being freed? Technically, Juneteenth arose to mark the day slaves in Texas were freed, but over the years it has been embraced nationwide as a celebration of emancipation.
But at the end of the day, I just can’t wrap my head around celebrating the fact that someone else freed my ancestors. It puts too much focus on a time when we were so starkly in the down position. Juneteenth seems to be about what someone else did.
Whites had been crucial to keeping the Abolitionist movement going. Certainly blacks worked alongside them: The career of Frederick Douglass is Exhibit A. And there were more slave revolts than we are often aware of.
However, we cannot say that blacks in America made their freedom happen. Freedom happened partly as the result of whites making other whites see the error of their ways. And Abraham Lincoln’s commitment was to preserving the Union as a political arrangement, which inherently included abolishing slavery. And even then, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all slaves, just slaves in the Confederacy, over which Lincoln had no jurisdiction.
So, yes, blacks played a part—but if for some bizarre reason blacks had not participated in the Abolitionist movement and had never revolted, it is thoroughly plausible that emancipation would have happened anyway.
Think about it: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was something that happened because we made it happen. As we have recently revisited in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s famous comment, Lyndon B. Johnson was the one who pushed it through Congress. However, he wouldn’t have done what he did absent the ferocious tenacity of Dr. King, his black comrades and the countless black people who gave their time, energy and sometimes their lives to battling Jim Crow to its knees and changing the nation’s mind on bigotry.
Juneteenth has also always left me a little cold because of what happened after slaves were freed.