Juneteenth, a Federal holiday
It isn't often one lives to witness the birth of a new Federal holiday, yet that's what has just happened as Juneteenth has been proclaimed a permanent part of the government calendar. There will be some education required ahead: A majority of American adults have little or no knowledge of the holiday.
■ The holiday presents us with an opportunity to fill that gap of knowledge, and to look for others as well. Considering that it represents the date in 1865 when people enslaved in Texas learned of their rightful freedom two and a half years after their freedom had already been declared in the Emancipation Proclamation (and even half a year after Congress passed the 13th Amendment), the holiday ought to be an annual reminder for us as a country to examine the disparities that linger and to shine light on the knowledge of our past that may have been hidden in the shadows.
■ Part of the insidious design behind slavery was to deprive enslaved people people of literacy. That forced a profound disadvantage on them, and on their offspring, too. Imagine what an extraordinary toll it imposed that most slave states actually forbade teaching enslaved people to read and write. Not only was that an immense burden to impose on those people in their own time, it served to erase (or at least hide) their presence from popular attention and historical memory. Even when freed, most of those previously-enslaved people couldn't write their own history.
■ Belatedly, America has stepped in the direction of correcting those cruel misdeeds. We're acknowledging that those stories need to be told. But that reveals the cruel paradox of annotating history to make up for the omissions of the past: It looks like history is being re-written, when in truth we are only filling in the blanks. To those with a disposition toward resentment, it looks like they're losing their own place in history, rather than gaining a fuller understanding of where others had been either intentionally or systematically left out. The sooner we act to recover those parts of the American story that were omitted, the wiser a people we become.
■ We're still not very far in time from when literacy tests were used to keep the descendants of slaves from exercising their right to vote, so it's important to see the act of correcting the record as the most American thing we can do. Benjamin Franklin wrote that "Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn." Knowledge (or, perhaps more exactly, the withholding of it) must not be used as a weapon by a virtuous people.
■ The United States has never been perfect -- even in our founding documents, we are merely promised a "more" perfect union as something to be pursued. Even that document followed the failure of the Articles of Confederation. But as we show ourselves willing to learn, we demonstrate the ability to become better. As we commence recognizing Juneteenth as a Federal holiday, we ought to use it as an annual reminder to be willing to learn, to rectify inequities and oppression, and to ensure that we tell the truth (and the whole truth) about our history.