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Why Juneteenth Isn't Taught In Schools — And What That Means For Our Understanding Of Slavery

The original Emancipation Proclamation (Evan Vucci/AP)
The original Emancipation Proclamation (Evan Vucci/AP)

On Jan. 1, 1863, in homes and churches throughout the country, free and enslaved Black Americans gathered. They heard something monumental was going to take place after hundreds of years of bondage: They were going to be freed.

This date marked the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, but it would take two more years before that proclamation would become reality for those who lived in places under Confederate control. That means many of those enslaved in places like Texas did not receive word of their freedom until June 19, 1865 — also known as Juneteenth.

Juneteenth, however, is often left out of history textbooks in school. Many Americans never really learned about the holiday.

“I am ashamed to say that it was in 2020 when most of the conversations about Juneteenth came into my everyday conversations,” a mother named Erica from Pasadena, California, says.

One Los Angeles resident says that she’s seen it written on the calendar but never fully learned about the significance behind the day.

Clint Smith, a staff writer at The Atlantic and author of the new book “How The Word Is Passed,” has spent years thinking deeply about how that contributes to society’s distorted understanding of slavery and how it ended.

He says this skewed understanding starts at the school level. Many important moments of resilience during slavery are ignored, and instead, schools gloss over the stories of Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass.

While Tubman and Douglass’ stories are both “deeply important” and deserve to be heard, Smith says only teaching about their lives distorts what slavery actually was. Their “exceptional lives” do not reflect what the vast majority of millions of enslaved people experienced, he says.

By focusing on the lives of a select few who ran away or dramatically rebelled and omitting the stories of millions of enslaved people, a major part of history is lost: how resistance has always been a part of the Black experience.

“Resistance happened in all sorts of subtle, smaller, everyday ways: when people fall in love, when people go dancing after a long day of work on a Saturday night, when little kids go in and skip rocks on the creek after a long day of working in the field,” he says. “Those too are acts of resistance because they are resisting the idea that they are simply chattel.”

Interview Highlights

On teaching the real lived experiences of enslaved people

“The thing about enslavement is that this is a system that existed over the course of hundreds of years, over the course of generations, that impacted millions and millions and millions of people who were all individual people, who all had their own sensibilities, who all moved through the world in their own specific idiosyncratic ways, and for whom resistance could look all sorts of different ways. Resistance is not just running away. Resistance is not just in the case of Frederick Douglass getting in a fight with your slave break. Resistance is not just a slave rebellion. And again, we should study those things. …

“I think that reminding ourselves and using Juneteenth as an occasion to remind ourselves that resistance was not just the massive rebellions or the dramatic acts of running away, but it was the small things and it was people carving out aspirations and carving out a community in the face of circumstances that we just couldn’t imagine today.”

On white guilt and shame about not knowing about Juneteenth or other historical moments like the Tulsa Massacre

“There is a sense of personal accountability in which I believe it is important for people to look around and consider not only in the context of race or in the context of slavery, but in the context of gender, in the context of sexual orientation, in the context of immigration and the history of imperialism, in the context of all of the myriad of things that affect our world, our society, our lives today. People carry a level of personal responsibility in which one should look around and consider what they don’t know and attempt to learn more about the forces that have shaped what our society looks like today. At the same time, I do think that we should recognize that there has been a generations-long, often state-sanctioned effort to prevent people from learning about so much of this stuff. And it’s a shame.

“And part of the insidiousness of white supremacy, I think, is that it takes empirical statements and turns them into ideological ones. Right. So I can say the Confederacy was a treasonous army that was predicated on maintaining and expanding the institution of slavery. For many people, that would be received as an ideological statement when it, in fact, is just an empirical truth, when it, in fact, is just something that comes from primary source documents that we have in which the Confederate states said quite explicitly why they were seceding from the Union. All you have to do is look at the declarations of Confederate secession in a place like Mississippi saying in 1861 that the reason they are seceding from the union and ultimately would start the Civil War is because ‘our interests are thoroughly aligned with the institution of slavery, the greatest material good in the world.’ All right. So they were not vague about this. But again, part of what’s happened over generations is that it is attempted to take statements like that and to make them seem controversial when they are simply based in truth.”

On how he is thinking about Juneteenth this year

“I think we’re in a moment where more people are beginning to recognize our proximity to this period of history. Slavery existed for 250 years in this country and has only not existed for about 150. My grandfather’s grandfather was someone who was born into slavery. So when my son sits on my grandfather’s lap, my 4-year-old son, I think about my grandfather sitting on his grandfather’s lap. And I’m reminded again that this history we tell ourselves was a long time ago wasn’t that long ago at all. And I think when we recognize our temporal proximity to the history of slavery, then I think it gives a holiday like Juneteenth, hopefully, a different level of resonance — at least I know it does for me.

“What I think most about when I think about Juneteenth is how there were millions of people across generations who are fighting to end this institution but never got to see the end of it. And they fought for the end of slavery and knew that they might never have the opportunity to see it for themselves. But they knew that somebody someday would. And I think that that’s the frame that we should that I at least take into so many of the problems that we see in our society. It’s like, well, you know, we are working to end mass incarceration. We are working to end poverty or we are working to end all these horrific things, not necessarily because we think we will see the end of it ourselves, but because we know that someday someone will, as long as each of us continue to do this work generation after generation after generation.”


Samantha Raphelson produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.