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THERE IS a vogue in American holidays. Some stay in fashion, others fade. Some have their roots deep in the past; others are largely artificial constructs.

In recent years, Halloween has become a big deal rather than the kids' night to play trick-or-treat till nine o'clock--a North American version of Mexico's Day of the Dead. Then there's Thanksgiving, perhaps the most American of holidays. It has met a felt need--to express our just plain gratefulness for the blessings of this land--and so a semi-history, semi-mythology grew up around it. Its Southern roots were largely supplanted by all those cutouts of Indians and Pilgrims that adorn elementary school classrooms every fall.

As for July 4, officially Independence Day, that grumpy old puritan John Adams foresaw with uncanny accuracy what it would become in the years ahead even though he understood the bloody price freedom would extract. As he wrote his wife Abigail, this day "will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival . . . solemnized with pomp and parade . . . bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore."

Mr. Adams got only one detail wrong: the actual date. He thought it would be July 2--the day the Continental Congress resolved that these colonies would henceforth be free and independent states, rather than July 4, when the Declaration of Independence was adopted. Leave it to dour Mr. Adams to think We the People would celebrate the issuing of a committee report.

A holiday requires more than an official proclamation; it needs a narrative. Like Christmas. Or Labor Day. Or Veterans Day.

Thankfully, today's holiday has an original narrative, too. It was the day all of us were free at last, thank God Almighty.

MUCH AS freedom came to the slaves, Juneteenth has spread only slowly, unevenly, moving in fits and starts. Just as jazz, another great American invention with its roots in the African American heritage, came up the river from New Orleans, so Juneteenth moved like a ripple out of Galveston, Texas. That's where the Union commander landed on June 19, 1865, with the news that The War was over and, oh yes, the slaves had been freed--two and a half years before!

No wonder Juneteenth was slow to catch on over the years; the end of slavery on this continent did not come on one definite date amid lightning and thunder. No waters parted, no great Exodus was scripturally enshrined. Instead, the wheels of emancipation ground slow and exceedingly fine. Some slaves were freed at once, others were not. Some heard about it, others did not. Some believed it, others did not.

Emancipation was more a mundane legal process than a voice from the heavens proclaiming liberty throughout the land. Mr. Lincoln's proclamation was an exercise of the commander-in-chief's wartime powers rather than some great declaration that all men are created equal.

How strange, too, that Abraham Lincoln, who contributed two almost biblical messages to American history in the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural, should have written an Emancipation Proclamation that has all the romance of a real estate deed, and not a single stirring line.

The Great Emancipator had become, as in a way he always was, the cautious lawyer. He was careful to proclaim liberty only in that part of the land where he was sure he legally could, but practically couldn't in the rebellious states. He was using emancipation as a weapon of war, aware that it could backfire but also hopeful that it would spell the end of slavery everywhere in the country soon enough.

It was all so indefinite, including the dates. Which explains why there's an emotional vacuum for Juneteenth to fill.

Juneteenth has certainly not filled it yet. Like freedom itself, it has great potential, and it's being observed far and wide. But the word needs to spread to more Americans. It has the makings of a great American holiday: It commemorates an actual event--the landing of Major General Gordon Granger, U.S.A., at Galveston, Texas, U.S.A. again. And it has roots in folklore as well as history.

The transformation of Juneteenth from a parochial, informal, almost underground holiday into a nationally accepted one could be a slave narrative, with fact and fancy all mixed up. But its identity with one distinctive group of Americans, rather than restricting the holiday, is no barrier to its general acceptance. After all, on St. Patrick's Day all Americans are Irish.

Besides, Juneteenth is connected not only with all-American ideals like freedom and independence but ... food! And nobody of any race, color, creed, religion or national origin is gonna turn down good barbecue.

We could get a dialogue started on that ever spicy subject. Now that would be a real national conversation--instead of one of those hoked-up political jobs. Dry rub or wet sauce? Chicken or beef or, this being Arkansas, pork? Now there's a debate to have!

Nobody knows the trouble Juneteenth's seen, but the fact that we recognize it today shows that we can overcome. And shall.

More than a great past, Juneteenth has a great future. Like freedom itself, it all depends on what we make of it.

Editorial on 06/18/2019

Print Headline: Juneteenth


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