I like to think of the Emancipation Proclamation as the interoffice memo we never got. At over 700 words it was #TLDR.
Two Januarys later, the 13th Amendment (the law that made slavery illegal in the United States) crossed the last hurdle in Congress. And even for a country 89 years old at the time…it literally served to document the idiom “Freedom isn’t free.” Apparently, neither was labor nor luck.
It was not until June 19th, 1865 — two and a half years after Lincoln’s emancipation and six months before ratification of the 13th — that an Army Colonel in Texas had to remind certain “employers” that slaveholding was now somewhat of an illegal occupation...That work of any color and kind now requires compensation...That human resource would now take on a kindler, gentler connotation.
Gordon Granger, who died a Major General in Santa Fe, New Mexico, made his proclamation in 96 words. I like to think of it as one of those company-wide emails, but on the shorter end…maybe even a longer-ish tweet. General Order No. 3.
Quite frankly, laws are like constitutions, hardly worth the parchment they are written on unless they are actually enforced and egalitarian. Like any workplace policy rollout, there’s an acclimation period for those who’ll inevitably say they “missed the memo”... Time for those who’ll say they hadn’t seen, read, or heard of the new standard operating procedures. Then comes the compliance period, that world thereafter when the time to get caught up on all the changes has expired. That’s when the military shows up armed and on horseback at your establishment because two and a half years is more than enough time to evolve the corporate culture.
The company culture of this country is self-evident in every federal document mentioned thus far. The Emancipation Proclamation directly references work (and war):
“And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.
And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”
The 13th Amendment makes explicit mention of work (read: involuntary servitude) and prison, while General Order No. 3 reclassified us from slave labor to “hired labor” and even offered suggestions (read: stereotypes) on how we should endeavor to conduct ourselves on our personal time.
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
Tropes concerning what Black people do during non-work hours persist to this very day. However, the one about idleness never made much sense to me. We essentially built the infrastructure and cultivated the wealth of this country for its first 90 years of existence by working 24/7 for what was the equivalent of livestock-level room and board. Doesn’t exactly suggest “lazy” to me, however, as one could imagine, the “let out” was last-day-of-school-spectacular.
The advent of newfound leisure time (ultimately thanks to common sense human rights and labor law) was understandably cause for celebration, the kind that is only made possible by time and money — two things we never had before. In 1866, on the one-year anniversary of Granger’s order in Galveston, Texas, Black churches began holding what would become annual commemorative gatherings designed to serve as a reminder to future generations of what it might feel like…to get word that your life as you know it...is about to be forever changed. For the better, in fact...96 words to be exact.
Modeled on the kind of celebration one might expect upon arrival in heaven, the church folk took to calling it Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, Liberation Day, and Freedom Day. Now, most commonly known as Juneteenth, it is no stretch to imagine that a heavenly homecoming presents a lot like the Black family reunions here on earth, ancestors y todo. I like to think of Juneteenth as a contraction of sorts, a combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth,” purposefully omitting the apostrophe and punctuating the fact that apostrophes indicate possession or the omission of numbers and letters (and in some cases, people).
It is fitting that some communities, like Las Vegas, Nevada, celebrate the birthday of Tupac Amaru Shakur (June 16th) alongside Juneteenth Celebrations. The turnup at the picnic is akin to at least two of the late rapper's music-videos-turned-wedding-receptions with the perpetual line dance being the Humpty Hump. It’s where California Love meets I Wonder If Heaven Got a Ghetto…and by “ghetto” he meant paradise…and by paradise we mean a place where we can belong with no judgement — just Juneteenth.
Juneteenth is also known as America’s true Independence Day because the passage of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776 didn’t include Black Americans in the “all men are created equal” part. And we were certainly not party to the “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” part…at least not until June 19th, 1855.
So where does that leave you? The proud beneficiary of these hard-won labor movement gains that leveled the playing field (read: plantation) for workers of all shades, shapes, sizes, sexes, Stars and Stripes? Have no fear, some BIPOC co-workers of yours and I have developed a Quick Reference Guide to Juneteenth for employers and employees alike. Feel free to use any or all items on this list for your 2021 Juneteenth observances…or any of the other 364 days a year when you are feeling a bit questionable (or a bit too comfortable) with the modern day phenomena of Blacks in the workplace.
You can listen to the latest episode of Hakim Bellany’s MELAN+aid podcast here.
Special thanks to Fawn Douglass, Jeremy Jasper, Janell Langford, and Justin Stucey for sharing their memories, experiences and Quick Reference Guide pointers. Hear them in their own words at the Melan+aid Podcast.
Author Bio: Hakim Bellamy served as Albuquerque’s Inaugural Poet Laureate from 2012 - 2014. Besides poems, he has written and continues to write other things like songs, play scripts, musicals, radio news scripts, short stories, flash fiction, music reviews, book reviews, newspaper articles and blogs, like this! Meet Hakim at www.beyondpoetryink.com.