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Embracing Freedom: Juneteenth Celebrations
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Embracing Freedom: Juneteenth Celebrations

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Embracing Freedom: Juneteenth Celebrations

Embracing Freedom: Juneteenth Celebrations
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June 19 marks the anniversary when slaves in Texas received word that they had been freed — two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Author Mark Anthony Neal and comedian Paul Mooney offer a lively take on why the holiday is still worth celebrating.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: How do you decide on what to spend on a wedding or graduation gift? Words of financial wisdom from money guru, Alvin Hall.

But first, today is June 19th, and that means it's not just any old day in June. It's also known as Juneteenth, a holiday that marks the day slaves in Galveston, Texas found out that they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Now that was two and a half years after the day the proclamation was issued. So what to make of Juneteenth? A celebration of a new future, or yet another reminder of a painful past?

Joining us to talk about this is Mark Anthony Neal. He's a professor of black popular culture at Duke University. He joins us from Durham in North Carolina. Also with us is actor and comedian Paul Mooney. He's been talking about black culture for years. He's at our bureau in New York.

Thank you both for being here.

Professor MARK ANTHONY NEAL (Black Popular Culture, Duke University): Great to be here, Michel.

Mr. PAUL MOONEY (Actor, Comedian): Yeah, thank you.

MARTIN: Mark Anthony Neal, let's start with you. How did this happen? How did Juneteenth start?

Prof. NEAL: Well, you know, given the social networks at the time, you can imagine that, you know, information didn't get out as quickly as possible, and there were folks who probably weren't as interested in having folk to get the information that they could walk off of these plantations, you know. So literally, it's two-plus years later that these folks in Galveston, Texas finally get the info, you know, the information about the Emancipation Proclamation and find out that they're free.

MARTIN: Did somebody finally just show up and announced it? How did it happen?

Prof. NEAL: I imagine that was exactly it, you know, someone finally comes down with the word. I mean, it's not like folks, you know, were able to send email or text messages at the time. And again, you know, because you're talking about social networks and black folks being in various outposts around the country, I mean, the information simply was not going to be reproduced the way that we think about information being reproduced now.

MARTIN: As I understand it, the Union General Granger shows up in Galveston, Texas on June 19th and reads the Emancipation Proclamation someplace, and informs that slaves - that they were free. But how did it get to be a holiday or even thought about as a holiday or a day of acknowledgement?

Prof. NEAL: I think it was a very useful day just to, you know, particularly for those folks in Galveston, Texas and the state in Texas in general. It was a useful date to say, yes, this is when it finally ends. When we have a sense that everybody knew that there was this Emancipation Proclamation, that this an ideal day to celebrate the end of it. Even I could imagine there were probably folks, even at that moment, who hadn't quite gotten the information yet.

MARTIN: Do you celebrate it, Mark?

Prof. NEAL: I celebrated, you know, to the extent that I'm in places where the celebration is going on. I mean, I don't go out of my way and go, oh my God, it's Juneteenth. But as it gotten much more popular - and I guess now there are 14 states that celebrate the holiday - you know, you find yourself in various places where Juneteenth is, in fact, a big deal, as it is here in Durham.

MARTIN: And Paul Mooney, what's your take? One of your performances…

Mr. MOONEY: Well my take about…

MARTIN: …is know your history. So break it down.

Mr. MOONEY: Well, yeah. But my take is on both of you, you're living in illusion. Perhaps I missed something. I have no idea we were freed. I know that we don't pick cotton anymore, but we wear it. And somewhere, I'm missing something. We were freed, and then he said walk away from the plantation. You would think they'd be running away. And let's keep it real. White folks knew that slaves were free, okay. And they just didn't tell us. We couldn't read or write. And just didn't tell us. They did it on purpose. They did it on purpose. They didn't tell us, but it's all very funny to me.

And it's very strange about celebrating something. It's very American, you know, and it's very white American not to tell us things to keep us in the darkness. They still keep us in the darkness. I mean, things, you know, haven't changed much. I mean, I celebrate any celebration with freedom for us. I mean, let's keep it real. Sugar was free before us, okay? And it sort of made me angry when I walk in the store - sugar free. I said, sugar free? Well, when am I going to get free?

MARTIN: Okay. So you don't celebrate it, Paul Mooney.

Mr. MOONEY: What? I do celebrate anything with freedom in it, you know.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. MOONEY: Anything with freedom in it, except for free base, and I knew that was…

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. MOONEY: …before us when free was in it. I said, well, that's not for me. I know that. (unintelligible)

MARTIN: Mark Anthony, is there any reason not to celebrate? I mean, it seems to me at least it is an interesting day to even think about. On the one hand, it is a day or acknowledgement. You can say that it's sort of a punctuation point on a history. And it's also an acknowledgement that the freedom didn't come overnight. It wasn't just like the Emancipation Proclamation, you know, read it and then all of the sudden everything changes. So in a way, it's an acknowledgement of the reality that took a very long time. On the other hand, it's kind of a dirty trick, like Paul Mooney was suggesting that, you know, two and a half years after the fact, and these folks are still just finding it out, so…

Prof. NEAL: I think celebration if really just a bad word. I mean, I think acknowledgement, you know, a day were we can acknowledgement - acknowledge, yes, this is when the proclamation finally get delivered to these folks, but also to talk about, you know, the specifics. You know, why did it take two and a half years for folks to get this information? You know, why weren't the whites interested, you know, in letting black people know they were free to leave these plantations? And I think Juneteenth, you know, if it's done right, allows us to celebrate and both acknowledge what's going on.

You know, for me, I never want to lose sight of these folks who get this information. When they finally get this information, you know, in June of what - 1865 - when they finally get this information, it's like they're not thinking to themselves, oh my God. Why did it take so long for us to get this information? All they know is that this one thing that they have dreamed about and thought about and really couldn't even conceptualize, that it was being presented to them. And I think we honor their humanity, right, in that particular historical moment, by acknowledging the significance of Juneteenth.

But I don't think that gets us away from the responsibility of often talking about the very real history of what happens when folks are, in fact, emancipated. They're not really emancipated. I mean, sharecropping - for all intents and purposes - keeps them in the system of chattel slavery, you know, going on for years - at least economically, you know, well into the 20th century.

MARTIN: We're talking about Juneteenth, the holiday marking the end of slavery with Professor Mark Anthony Neal and actor Paul Mooney.

Hey, Mooney, have you ever talked about Juneteenth in one of your routines?

Mr. MOONEY: Well, of course, I talk about everything that's historical in America. And, see, I'm from the South. I'm from Louisiana. You got to remember that slavery's very complex. It has a lot of levels to it. And you have to remember that these people are family, because this white man is sleeping with everybody. And I wouldn't want my son and my grandson to know he was free to leave.

You know, you have this - this is a very complicated situation. You're dealing with human beings. People keep forgetting that everybody's a human being, and human beings react the same way emotionally, okay?

MARTIN: To change into the loss of power.

Mr. MOONEY: Yes, into loss of power and the loss of their relatives. Let's keep this real, okay? We, as a race in America, are a conquered race. We have European names. We got to face that fact. We have European names. White people who are born in Africa - they have European names.

I've them come into my face - I'm African. I said, really? I want to hear an African name. You are Judith? I mean it's - you know, let's keep all of this real. This is all real complex. And you have to just deal with the reality of it, okay? And we're family, and as we all know, nobody hates like family. That's why we didn't get along. You could be in a hospital dying, and they bring in your best friend, and on your death bed, bring in Judith. Judith, I forgive you. And they bring in your sister, your brother, and you go, oh, hell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOONEY: I mean, let's keep this real.

MARTIN: So what are you going to do to celebrate, Mooney?

Mr. MOONEY: I'm coming over to your house and cook and eat up all your food. That's what I'm…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, what are we fixing? What is our Juneteenth menu?

Mr. MOONEY: Well, we're fixing slave foods, which will be nothing. So don't worry about it. You're not…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. It would be very cost - well, Mark Anthony Neal, do you think that Juneteenth ought to be a holiday?

Prof. NEAL: I think you'd say that. I think it's a wonderful opportunity to talk about this. I mean, I think, you know, it is a complex thing, and I don't think we spend enough time dealing with those complexities, you know, when we celebrate Juneteenth. You know, we go see our West African dances, and there's some spoken word, poetry and, of course, there's the quote, unquote, "slave food." But I think to really push the envelope with Juneteenth is to talk about those difficulties about slavery that no one in this country wants to talk about.

Mr. MOONEY: And you know what else?

MARTIN: Go ahead.

Mr. MOONEY: You know what else? Wait. You know what else no one ever talks about? Our image of the slave is we see adults with chains on the necks. Am I right or wrong? Our image - "Roots," the whole thing - adults, right?

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. MOONEY: We never see children in chains. They left millions of orphans in Africa, because the old people and the young couldn't survive that voyage, okay? We don't have that image, and no one writes or talk about those orphans that were left in Africa. And if Madonna and that other - what's the actress name with the big lips?

MARTIN: Angelina Jolie.

Mr. MOONEY: If they were around, they would adopted them all. So that would have taken care of that.

MARTIN: Mark Anthony Neal, how would teach about Juneteenth? I mean, obviously, you teach a broad array of students. And at a university like Duke, you've got students who may or may not know a lot about American history, who come from all over the world.

Prof. NEAL: Well, first of all, I got to get out of their head, you know, this very image of slavery that we think about that, you know, to not think about slavery. Yes, it was something that was an amazing threat to the humanity of a group of people, but to talk about the economic components about it. That this was about using free labor to develop the economy of the South. And I don't think there's enough of our conversation attached to that notion of slavery. I mean, you understand sharecropping, for instance, when you understand the economic component of it.

And I think because we spent a lot of time, you know, in this kind of way, and nostalgically thinking about how bad the slaves were treated. And yes, they were treated incredibly horribly. But there was an economic reason for this, right? Juxtapose, for instance, why folks who are much more willing, for instance, to have, say, European immigrants - particularly of Irish descent -to do certain kind of dangerous jobs. You know, because if you killed 20 Irishmen, you could get 20 more. You know, if you killed 20 of your property, that was a real economic loss to you.

So the kind of violence that you would, you know, assume to the whole community. I mean, you were very tactical with that, because these were property that you had to protect. And again, to talk about the humanity of these folks who, for all their lives, are just imagining what freedom is. They've only heard it as a word.

They've only heard liberation as a word, and suddenly, it's being presented to them and they have to now imagine the world that they live in in ways that were unimaginable to them, that they didn't have language and words to describe. And I think that connect to that kind of humane aspect of slavery and emancipation and now Juneteenth is one of the ways that I would go at teaching this to my students.

MARTIN: And so, Mark, when you think of Juneteenth, do you think of triumph or do you think of pain?

Prof. NEAL: I think of both. And I don't think you can separate one from the other. I mean, it is a bittersweet reality. Yes, these folks have attained freedom, but damn. Why did it take two and a half years for them to be able to get the word?

Mr. MOONEY: Okay, I'll just - well, what I want to say…

MARTIN: Mooney, last words.

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah, keep it real, because we don't want to get into this illusion. I'm an American, and I don't want any special nothing. I don't want affirmative action - too much affirmative, not enough action. I don't want this civil rights bill, this voting thing. I am an American. That Constitution protects me. And if you don't want me to vote in the state, when I get through suing you, you'll bring the ballot to my house. I'm very aware of everything. But I'm just saying, the reality of it is this: I want the same freedom. I'm an American. I'll end it with that. Juneteenth, June 19th, 18th, 20th, I am an American.

MARTIN: All right. Paul Mooney, actor, stand up comedian extraordinaire. He joined us from our New York bureau. His latest DVD is "Jesus is Black and so was Cleopatra: Know Your History." And we were also joined by Mark Anthony Neal. He's professor of black popular culture at Duke University. He joined us from Durham, North Carolina. His latest book is "New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity." Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. MOONEY: Thank you.

Prof. NEAL: Thank you.

MARTIN: And I guess what it would be, Happy Juneteenth?

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah, Happy Juneteenth.

MARTIN: Happy Juneteenth.

Prof. NEAL: Happy Juneteenth.

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