While Juneteenth has recently gained more attention as the penultimate celebration of the end of chattel slavery in the United States, Florida’s actual date of emancipation falls on the 20th of May. It was on that day in 1865 that Union Brig. Gen, Edward McCook read President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation from the steps of what is now known as the Knott House (a beautiful structure believed to have been constructed by Black builder George Proctor) in Tallahassee, effectively ending slavery in Florida. Nearly every year since that day, many communities, especially those in Old Florida, have celebrated the anniversary of freedom with parades, picnics, maypoles, games, good food, and jubilation. When African Americans had more control over their schools, children were released from their studies in order to partake in the festivities.
After the Racial Reckoning of 2020, many organizations and governmental agencies grabbed hold of the Juneteenth holiday as the low-hanging symbolic fruit that could demonstrate inclusion, with many localities around the nation, as well as in the state of Florida, hastily pushing forward proclamations and legislation making June 19th , the day that the end of slavery was announced in Texas, a paid holiday. Despite the positive nature of this impulse, enshrining Juneteenth as a holiday in Florida instead of the 20th of May ignores historical fact, overshadowing 150 years of tradition that has been kept alive in communities around the state, large and small. Historical accuracy matters.
There is room, however, for a “Season of Freedom,” tying together the 20th of May as Florida’s emancipation day, Juneteenth as the end of slavery in the US, and the 4th of July, as an opportunity to contrast the unique history of Black people in America. This would be a welcome update on the candy-coated, myopic celebration of mythical American origins that flatten the complexities of our national origins as a group of settler colonies, and marginalizes the stories of African and Indigenous peoples. This is the noble work that Nikole Hannah-Jones undertook with the New York Times in the “1619 Project.” Her well-intended attempt to correct and expand our understanding of our national origins sparked a ﬁrestorm that actively burns today with attempts to demonize and in effect silence her project as well as critical race theory. Those in power understand well the link between history, power, and the future. A historical narrative that decenters Whiteness and discusses the violent subjection of nonWhite people would certainly call into question many of the commonly accepted tenets of our national story. This points to the larger lesson from the Era of Trump that supersedes minor struggles over dates and holidays: facts matter, and the interpretation of those facts into history lay the groundwork for inclusivity or, in some cases, continued exclusion. It has taken decades of work by historians of all stripes to deconstruct the seductive narrative around the Confederacy as the “Lost Cause” that has been enshrined in textbooks and on the landscape throughout the nation. Because the fallacies about these Southern rebels against the United States were allowed to take root over several decades, they have proven resistant to the necessary correction to the distortions they propagate. Perhaps more importantly, an oversimpliﬁed narrative, engrained over decades, dulls reasoning and critical thinking. Why is the story so simple? Who is missing from the discussion? Who is the author and what are their biases? What do they have to gain from their interpretation of facts? Where does the power lie? These habits of mind can unravel false narratives, whether they involve the Southern Confederacy or conspiracy theories spouted on social media.
Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote in his book “Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History” that “[h]istory is the fruit of power…. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.” The habits of critical thinking and embracing the complexity of America’s making is the fertile ground for the future of our democracy. All else is sinking sand.