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Annette Gordon-Reed

How To Keep Juneteenth Alive All Year Round with Annette Gordon-Reed

About This Episode

Pulitzer Prize winner Professor Annette Gordon-Reed has been celebrating Juneteenth her entire life. But in light of the global spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement from last year’s protests against police brutality, more and more people are aware of what Juneteenth represents for America. As well as a celebration of Black joy and liberty, Juneteenth is an opportunity to reflect on the history of emancipation — and how we can continue to fight for civil rights the other days of the year too.  

In this episode, Professor Gordon Reed — a notable American historian and Harvard professor — shares why she wrote On Juneteenth, her personal relationship to the federal holiday, and why this year’s Juneteenth felt different than years before. 

Guest: Professor Annette Gordon-Reed
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Transcript

This transcript was automatically generated

Branden Harvey

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Branden Harvey

Juneteenth was only recently declared a national holiday, but Black Texans have been celebrating its importance for decades. The day has its origins in Texas, when Black slaves were declared free by the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation. But the meaning of Juneteenth spans greater than a single day or state. It's also a day to reflect on the history of Black people in America and what freedom looks like then and now. This is Sounds Good, I'm Branden Harvey.


Branden Harvey

I am joined today by Professor Annette Gordon-Reed. She is a big deal. She's so cool.


Branden Harvey

In addition to being an accomplished American historian and a professor at Harvard University, Professor Gordon-Reed is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for History. I think that she is officially our first Pulitzer Prize winner to be on the podcast. I'm getting nervous now. If we've had a previous Pulitzer Prize winner on the podcast, I apologize. But she's written numerous books throughout the course of her career. But most recently, she penned this beautiful book called on Juneteenth to start a dialogue about what Juneteenth truly means. Since last summer's nationwide protests against police brutality and white supremacy, more Americans than ever are celebrating Juneteenth and educating themselves on what the day's significance is. In her new book, Professor Gordon-Reed dives into the history of slavery in Texas, misconceptions about the holiday, and seamlessly weaves her own family's story into this book. It's so beautifully written. I had the opportunity to speak with Professor Gordon-Reed about her own upbringing and how she and her family spent Juneteenths in Texas and what it means to see Juneteenth embraced on such a large national scale. What I appreciate most about our conversation is Professor Gordon-Reed's attention to nuance in discussing sensitive topics while also bringing her full personality and humor into the conversation.


Branden Harvey

And my hope is that this episode will inspire all of us to appreciate the full history of Juneteenth and all of the landmarks of black liberation in America. This was such a fun episode. I really enjoyed it. I hope you do, too. Let's jump straight into it.


Branden Harvey

Professor Gordon-Reed, you grew up in Texas and have celebrated Juneteenth year after year, for much longer than many Americans have known that they existed. And so I want to start off by asking, what does Juneteenth mean to you?


Professor Annette Gordon-Reed

Well, it means to me the day that we commemorate the end of slavery in Texas. And it was a day of celebration, a day for fun for me as a kid. I think back to my childhood celebrating Junetennth typically, and it was a day where we ran around and drank too much soda water, and ate barbecue, and played with friends through firecrackers -- even though we probably should have been playing with matches and firecrackers. But that was a different era, a different era of parenting. It was a day of family. I sort of thought of it as a kid as almost like a black version of July 4, even though we celebrated July 4 as well. This was sort of our special day, and that's what I think. Of course, I'll have to think of it differently now, but it was a day that black Texan celebrated the end of slavery in the state.


Branden Harvey

And how did you feel as you saw the holiday kind of grow beyond just Texas to being celebrated more and more. And then, of course, this year, seeing it recognized on such a large scale?


Professor Annette Gordon-Reed

Well, I felt a little bit of possessiveness about it. I was a tad resentful at the idea that other people were celebrating this because it had always been a mark of uniqueness for me and thinking about black Texans, that we were special in a way. And it took me a long time to realize that what had happened was that as some black people left Texas, they took the holiday with them. They didn't forget about it, and they began to celebrate it in their new homes, and other people heard about it. And so this was Texans carrying the story to other people. And as I thought about it, it made no sense to be possessive about it because it was a good thing, right. And you want as many people as possible to share in what actually is sort of a step in terms of progress for human rights, the end of slavery in a state, in the largest state of the union. It wasn't just about the Texans, but it was about the United States. And I think ultimately it's a step in human rights in general, and everybody should be willing to celebrate that.


Branden Harvey

It's been really fun for me to see just this growth of celebrations, and I feel like I was kind of new to it last year or the year before. And just getting to feel like this is something that I feel excited to celebrate because I don't know, there's something about some holidays in the US where it feels very one-dimensional. And this is a holiday that feels very two-dimensional. And it's true in a very complicated way because it holds onto both the pain of this brutal history, but also kind of a sense of purpose at the same time or it holds onto heartbreak, but also on to hope. And I'm curious about your thoughts on that unique tension. How do you manage that tension or think about that tension?


Professor Annette Gordon-Reed

Well, I think it's built into it. It's built into the day because even if you know about or think about the way people who heard the news that they were no longer going to be treated as property, meaning they couldn't legally be sold and separated from family and husbands, from wives, mothers from children and so forth, which was the trauma of slavery. And even though they heard that that wasn't going to happen, they knew it was going to be a struggle. So it's sort of inherently this day of celebration, but at the same time, a sense of purpose has to go along with it. And that's always been a part of the celebration. I mean, the Emancipation Day picnics they used to have and the way people gathered when they did it, not just at their homes but in public places featured speeches and songs, and the history was recounted. And as was the notion that we still had to go forward, there was still a struggle. There were things to be done. So I think this is a holiday that is I said it is tailor-made for history and remembering, and it requires you to think about the story, what happened, who are the people who were involved, what happened afterwards?


Professor Annette Gordon-Reed

I've had a number of people express concern about the possibility that this will become just another day off and white sales, and so forth, that kind of thing that will surely come to be a feature of it at some point in the future. But the benefit is that we've been celebrating this for 156 years in Texas, and people know how to do that. I think with the King holiday, we're still trying to figure out what to do besides playing "As I Have A Dream" speech and recounting those things that are important. But we have a memory and a history with this holiday that people could look to and draw inspiration, draw ideas about celebrations, but always keeping the history at the forefront.


Branden Harvey

Yeah. It's really anchored into our rich history in Texas, and it would take another 150 years to offset that, it seems. And so that's a really good way of looking at it.


Branden Harvey

I know that you grew up celebrating Juneteenth, and you, of course, are an incredibly talented and thoughtful historian and writer, but where did these two things intersect for you? Where did your interest in Junetennth as a historian begin?


Professor Annette Gordon-Reed

Well, I did an essay for The New Yorker last year, June 2020, that came out then about Juneteenth, and it had me -- I talked a little bit about my upbringing and my childhood and also the holiday, the history behind the holiday. And I'd also done a review for The New York Review of Books of five books about Texas some months before that. So Texas was sort of on my mind and those two things together. And here I was in the middle of the pandemic, stuck in my apartment here, like everybody else in the world, quarantined off. And I had time to think about life. And it made me think about my parents who are no longer living. And I started thinking about what they would make of the particular moment. We were in the middle of this pandemic, that the world was being held hostage pretty much by this virus, and I missed them, and I wanted to make a connection to them. So I decided to write something about this. I thought my editor mentioned this as well, that Juneteenth might be a good way of jumping off period for a discussion, but I didn't want it to be just a memoir.


Professor Annette Gordon-Reed

I didn't want it to be just, "And this happened to me, and then this happened to me, and then this happened to my family." I wanted to use my family as a jumping off point to talk about Texas, Texas as an entity, as a state, and the history of Texas. So I got the idea of taking my family's story, as I said, as a jumping off point, to talk about important things in Texas history. Because Texas, I spent a lot of my time since I've been in the north for many years. After I went to college and then law school and then settled here in the North, I've had to explain Texas to a lot of people. I've had the occasion to say what's going on with that? And so here I just thought that this would be a good way to do it. And my editor and I have been talking about doing a big book about Texas over the years, but I wanted this to be small, more intimate, more personal, but at the same time not focusing in on my family too much, just enough to start a conversation about things that I wanted people to know about the state of Texas.


Branden Harvey

Hey, we're going to take a quick break. And when we're back, Professor Gordon-Reed talks about what exactly we're celebrating on Junetenth and how we can keep the spirit alive on other calendar days. So you don't want to miss this. We'll be right back.


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Branden Harvey

Did you find that there were some key misconceptions about Texas or some key misconceptions about Juneteenth that you knew that you had to grapple with that? You knew you had to use this book to push back against.


Professor Annette Gordon-Reed

Well, first on Texas, push back against the idea of Texas as just the West, Texas as a place of Cowboys or Texas as being about oilmen. If you've seen the film Giant or you know what that is, or read the novel by Edna Ferber, that is the kind of quintessential presentation of Texas. It presents a history of Texas. Once there were these cattlemen people who were dealt with cattle, and their way of life was eclipsed by the sort of crass wildcatting oilmen. And those are the two figures in Texas. But no one talks about the other figure, which would be the plantation owner. And the plantation owner necessarily invites a discussion about the institution of plantations and the institution of slavery. And the presentation that leaves that out leaves out Texas as a slave society and also leaves black people out of the picture. And so I wanted to bring that back in so that people can see that a lot of the things that are happening in Texas, a lot of the things, questions that come out about this place grow out of that society. So that is the story that I wanted to expand on Texas.


Professor Annette Gordon-Reed

I say that Texas is constructed as a white man. Texas has a gender and a race, and it's a white guy and a white man. And there are people there who live there who are obviously not white men. There are white women and black women and black men and Latino people, indigenous people. And I wanted to expand the picture of what Texas was like. Also, on the question of Juneteenth, the story is always presented as if enslaved people had no idea there was such thing as Emancipation Proclamation, and whites were keeping it from them. And so Gordon Granger comes to Galveston, June 19, 1865, and he's telling them the great news that nobody knew anything about. Well, that's not really the case. What happened is that Granger gets there in June. This is a couple of months after Appomattox, after Lincoln has been assassinated. And many people think that the end of the war was Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. That's what is all over. But that's not what happened. The Confederates kept fighting, and the army of the trans Mississippi kept fighting well into May. And in fact, the last battle of the Civil War, they won, but they knew that they may have won that battle, but the war, the overall war, was hopeless.


Professor Annette Gordon-Reed

And so they surrender at the beginning of June. And then that's when Granger can go into Galveston and take note, just he didn't go there just to make this announcement. He was there with the troops to take over, to take control of Texas, which would now be brought back into the Union. Lincoln thought he never left, but Rebellion thought it was illegal, but they would take over in Texas. So this idea of the unknowledgeable, the unknown enslaved person. And I think the story is told that way to try to enhance the villainy of slave owners, that they were keeping this from people. Well, you don't really have to, you don't have to do anything to make them not villainous. It'd be hard. You don't need any embellishment there. But the villainy was in fighting, keeping up the fight even after things were over and going to sort of the last ditch effort to maintain their way of life, which was essentially a system of slavery. So those two things Texas, the sort of construction of Texas as this white space outside of the south. And then Juneteenth, a story of unknowing people who certainly have the light brought to them when, in fact, they knew I mean, the recollections of people say and indications say that these people knew what was happening, what was going to happen there.


Professor Annette Gordon-Reed

And this was just a fulfillment of it. It shows you that Juneteenth is really about a military victory, the result of a military victory that was made possible in part by the influx of black troops, enslaved men who ran away and joined the Union Army and helped defeat the Confederacy.


Branden Harvey

That is so fascinating and so incredible. And I think that there is something special about the fact that you brought this up earlier, that we get to use this day as an opportunity to remember this story and to learn and to kind of hold on to this complicated narrative. And I love that last year I learned more than I knew the year before. This year, thanks to you, I'm learning more than I knew last year. And I hope that just continues and this becomes more rich.


Professor Annette Gordon-Reed

Yeah, it definitely will. I grew up thinking of Galveston, for example, just as a beach town. And I knew that my great grandfather went there to work on the wharfs. He would leave his cotton farm and go there to make extra money. So that was only two things that I thought about Galveston. But from doing research for this book, such as I could do it here in my apartment, most of the things were online. But I would like to go there and really go through and try to dig deeper. I'm fascinated by the black community in that place, black men who were working on the wharfs in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, who had a Union and who were active in politics to the extent that they could be. So I guess I'm just agreeing with you. There's going to be a lot more that we will find out about this place and that we'll find out about this holiday, too.


Branden Harvey

What I like about what you just said is that we are going to learn a lot more, but you are going to learn it as a historian, and then we are going to learn it from you. I'm very grateful. I've got two last questions before we wrap. The first is, it's such a celebratory moment that we get to honor this as a federal holiday but we also hold this tension of the fact that there is still so much more work to be done. And there are many other bills that many of us wish had been signed that tangibly help people in this country, black people in this country, more than just making a holiday. How can we hold on to both of those things at once and celebrate this thing while also pushing for this other legislation?


Professor Annette Gordon-Reed

Well, we just have to do it. We have to do it. We do it all the time in our lives. We hold these kinds of tensions. The holiday is important. It's symbolically important. I think we can do all the education that we talk about, but the voting rights, those things are existential crises at the moment. I think they're serious and just heard that they've blocked the bill. We're going to keep working on that. I don't know if we will be successful, but we will.


Branden Harvey

That's great. I think that's so important. And then lastly, Juneteenth was last week. I know that many of the interviews that you have that have aired so far were you getting interviewed and talking about this before the day happened, and so I just want to wrap up by asking how was your celebration this year and how did it feel different from last year's if it did?


Professor Annette Gordon-Reed

Well, it felt very different. I mean, first I'd gone down to Washington for the signing, and I had to stay there because I had a lot of interviews and I couldn't get back. So I basically spent the day in the hotel, Friday doing interviews and came back on Saturday and had more interviews to do. So it was a combination of work and fun. I was talking to people on Juneteenth about Juneteenth, people who are interested in it. We got barbecue and Red Soul.


Branden Harvey

Good!


Professor Annette Gordon-Reed

And we did those kinds of things. But it was a more relaxing holiday. I really want to do it up next year. I'd like to maybe go down to Texas and if I do some things, visit relatives and maybe do some events and attend some, maybe go to Emancipation Park down in Houston again. But this time this was more low key. Although we did our ritual food items, it was a day of talking to other people and answering questions about Juneteenth, which was fun.


Branden Harvey

That was Pulitzer Prize winner Professor Annette Gordon-Reed on her new book on Juneteenth. You can order the book from your local bookstore through Bookshop.org or you can download the amazing audiobook. I do highly recommend the audiobook. It's really beautifully narrated. Of course, you can find that at Libro.fm and use the promo code GOOD to get a Good Good Good discount.


Branden Harvey

Even though Juneteenth has passed for the year 2021, the fight for civil rights is still ongoing. A few ways to honor Juneteenth the entire year is continuing to educate ourselves about the history of slavery and supporting educators like Professor Gordon-Reed. This podcast was created by Good Good Good. At Good Good Good, we help you feel more hopeful and do more good. You can find more good news and ways to make a difference in our weekly email newsletter, our beautiful print Goodnewspaper or online at goodgoodgood.co. You'll remember that you can become a Good Good Good member, get access to the Goodnewspaper and join our digital community The Neighborhood by becoming a Good Good Good subscriber. Just go to goodgoodgood.co/membership. This episode was created by Sarah Lee, Megan Burns and mee Brandon Harvey. It was edited and sound designed by the team at Sound On Studios. You can find out more about their work at soundonsoundoff.com. Please make sure to hit the follow button wherever you listen to podcasts so that you can get a new episode of Sounds Good delivered straight to your phone each Monday while you sleep. And if you have a favorite episode of the show, share it on your Instagram Stories. It helps get the word out about celebrating good news and taking good action.


Branden Harvey

And with that, that is a wrap for this week's episode. Go out and learn one more new fact about Juneteenth and we'll be back next week with more good news and good action. Sound good?

Episode Details

June 28, 2021
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