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Juneteenth and the Need for a Single-Story Narrative about American History


Today is the second official celebration of the Federal Holiday, Juneteenth. Some of us are working on this day. Some of us have the day off. Some of us are using this time as a day of service. It’s a mixed-bag of results on how we, as a nation, view the importance of Juneteenth, and how it fits within the whole of the American story. As I was walking last night around my neighborhood and listening to podcasts, Jonathan Greenblatt and Bryan Parker’s “The Law in Black and White” podcast began playing and it really struck me as relevant to why the celebration of Juneteenth is so disjointed, even here in Texas where it began.

Jon and Bryan’s guest was Dr. Renee Harrison, Professor of African American and US Religious History at Howard. Apparently Bryan, ever the believer in life-long learning, is working on his Masters of Divinity there at Howard, and has had the pleasure of taking a few of Dr. Harrison’s courses. And, after listening to the discussion, it made me want to audit a class or two from Dr. Harrison as well.

Dr. Harrison’s new book, Black Hands, White House: Slave Labor and the Making of America, talks about the role “Enslaved black people played a role in building America’s infrastructure and wealth.” And she asks the poignant question, “why is it there is no monument on the National Mall in the National City that speaks to that truth?” American value a single-story narrative about our history, yet this large part of our history is not part of the cultural memory of America. Dr. Harrison points out:

Yes, the cultural memory is all of ours. The American story is all of ours. And I often raised the question, how does a nation or individuals heal without the whole story? How does one or how does a nation address injustice is in America, from slavery to present, without the voices of the injured? And that’s what the museum points us to, the voices of the injured. They’re not in celebration mode. They’re in reflection mode, when you see those shoes, you’re in reflection mode. So how does one address injuries in America from slavery to present without the voices of the injured? How is healing possible with a single story narrative? That means a one sided narrative about America’s history by which we see enshrined in monuments? And whether I said that monument or that narrative is verbal meaning something that’s told in speech, or inscribed something that’s written in a book, or enshrined in a monument? How is healing possible when we have just one dimension of a story?

This is a law blog, and The Law in Black and White is a law podcast, so Dr. Harrison turns the questions back on the interviewees about how does a nation of laws, who values the rule of law, stand by those values when Proclamations are ignored. When the 13th Amendment is ignored, and in some cases not even ratified until as recently as nine years ago? She asks, ” I, as a historian, not a lawyer, I sometimes wonder, what is the value of proclamations, orders and laws that are blatantly disregarded by one segment of the society, but remain enforceable with the greatest gravities of penalties to another segment comprised of people who look like me?”

It is a great conversation, and I hope that whether you are working, relaxing, or doing a day of service, that you take the time to listen in on this wonderful conversation.




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