Juneteenth, June 19, 1865. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation finally became a reality when the last slaves were set free in Texas. It’s not surprising that the annual celebration of “Juneteenth” began there, or that it eventually bloomed into a national holiday–at least for black people.
But now that’s changing as Americans of all colors are beginning to acknowledge and celebrate June 19th. And well we should. Just as all Germans should celebrate April 11th, the day Buchenwald, the largest Nazi concentration camp, was opened and its last surviving victims were set free. No matter how some may feel about it.
June 19th is our holiday. No matter how some of us may feel about it. Or rather, because of how we feel about it. Yes, it feels different to those whose ancestors were slaves than those whose ancestors owned slaves. Just as April 11th feels different to those whose parents were concentration camp victims than those whose parents were Nazis—or who simply closed their eyes to the atrocities being committed by their nation.
Our history is cratered with hypocrisy. All nations’ histories are cratered with hypocrisy. And any history lesson that fails to acknowledge that—including all of its ramifications—is a lie. Yes, courageous Europeans settled this “new world.” But they also trampled on the rights of people who’d already been here for millennia, unintentionally (and intentionally) wiping out the vast majority of them. Later, descendants of the same Europeans founded a model of democracy admired and emulated throughout the world. Yet many of those same founders owned slaves, and didn’t fully grasp (or chose not to) their own hypocrisies.
On July 4th, Americans will celebrate Independence Day. It’s a holiday that belongs to all of us. No matter how some of us may feel about it. Yesterday, statues of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence but also owned slaves, and George Washington, who was our nation’s first president but also owned slaves, were torn down.
Yes, they were hypocrites. But we don’t celebrate what they did wrong; we celebrate what they did right. Should we tear down the statues of those whose primary achievement was promoting slavery? Yes! But not those who laid the groundwork for the end of slavery (even if they didn’t enact it) with their proclamation that “all men are created equal.”
All of our heroes are hypocrites, because all humans are hypocrites. So the only way to move forward is to confess our wrongdoings, while soberly learning from them, and to celebrate our right-doings, acknowledging all of our beauty and all of our scars…