Intimate, first-person perspective gives authentic context to late twentieth-century racial conventions


Annette Gordon-Reed

On Juneteenth


Hardcover (also available on audio), 9781631498831, 144pgs., $15.95

May 4, 2021


Wherever Texas history is taught or spoken of, Annette Gordon-Reed’s On Juneteenth should be read and discussed. This compact, well-written, intriguing collection of essays is an important addition to the real story, beyond the mythology, of Texas, both the land and the people. This matters a lot, because as Gordon-Reed states, “[a]ll the major currents of history flow through Texas,” including a shared border with another country, a long history of disputes with colonial and indigenous populations, strife between Anglo-European and Spanish settlers, and plantation-based slavery.


She disputes Faulkner, who famously wrote “the past is never dead,” offering a better way to regard history: Gordon-Reed patiently, logically proves that iconic but ignored past reality—like slavery and racism—informs present and even future expectations with an unwarranted normative overlay of fault lines. This fissured, flawed foundation ensures fractured— “baked-in,” to use her very appropriate descriptor—classism and racism in both present and future America. Even the title is a revelation about the emancipation formality and the essays themselves: “on” means the date itself, but more importantly, “about” the distorted and slanted historical narrative that has proceeded from Juneteenth.


These essays are a very well-drawn, easily read conversation that splits the typically generalized and institutionally sanitized historical spectrum into its most revealing component hues. For example, she speaks matter-of-factly about racial stereotypes born of the nation’s earliest history. Then, Black people were mythologized as incapable of the intellectual prerequisites for foreign language fluency, even as Thomas Jefferson’s mixed-race children spoke fluent French they learned while living and working in France. They had successful, professional careers on both sides of the Atlantic, but that reality has been largely expunged from the cultural capital that is the national, racialized settlement narrative.


More ominous is the historical subtext of white men’s territorial property rights over white women, to the ultimate exclusion of Black men under penalty of lynching. The very justice system that decreed emancipation of slaves undermined their entitlement to racial equality time and again: Black men were subject to brutal mob justice and savage death upon allegation of interracial, even consensual sexual relations, while a white man who executed a Black man in the courtroom was set free.


There’s much more: the American settlement myth is discernably provincial, as Gordon-Reed points out. Modern-day residents of the northeast barely nod at the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, privileging the Mayflower, Plymouth Rock version with no mention of slavery and a symbiotic fable of indigenous people collaborating with the colonialists who eventually displaced them. Down south, the Jamestown/Williamsburg tableau obscures the slavery that powered the agrarian, for-profit settlement and annexes a historically true interracial indigenous-colonial liaison to conform to the Pocahontas-John Smith Disney script. Both settlement narratives, however, are more fiction than fact.


Texas fared no better, with slavery assured by Mexican, Spanish, and native Texan constitutional authority, depending on which flag flew over the state. In all cases, as a means of undergirding an agrarian economy, slavery enforced an ironclad racism that excluded Black slaves and indigenous people from any rights or return on their vital, forced labor.


Gordon-Reed offers an intimate, first-person perspective that gives authentic context to late twentieth-century racial conventions as she experienced them. She herself was transferred by her parents from a Black to a predominantly white elementary school and encountered backlash from other Black children for being “that girl,” and felt the “oddity of being on display.” She even found herself at odds with her white friends who, to her dismay, believed they shouldn’t play in a teacher’s view, even in their own neighborhood, because they needed to feign more dedication to their homework.


After desegregation, her mother, a respected and accomplished teacher at the Black high school, was transferred to a teaching position in a white high school where she was respected and made many friends with her colleagues. Nonetheless, the paradoxical and very real loss was that her life’s mission—moving the Black community forward—no longer existed in the same way in that integrated context. Teaching Black students in an integrated school, she lamented, “I just can’t talk to them the way we used to.”


There’s an eye-opening discussion of racial stereotypes in entertainment media, and Gordon-Reed contextualizes the reality of the cinematic hero-trope of Billy Jack: interracial, neither Black nor white, partially Native American and a Marine. Beyond the typical white hero profile, the Billy Jack character, she says with devastating accuracy, gave people “permission to envision themselves as a non-White person.”


The book is not long—less than two hundred pages, in fact. Nonetheless, this collection of vignettes strikes an engaging, truthful balance between criticism and aspiration, flaws and strengths, myth and reality. They demand to be reread, reconsidered, and contextualized, overlaid even, on the traditional notions of our state and our nation. This is important, and truly, I believe this is the most significant book I’ll read this year.

Texas native Annette Gordon-Reed is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard University. The author of Pulitzer Prize–winning The Hemingses of Monticello, she lives in New York and Cambridge.