Writer Jelani Cobb tells a Tufts audience that we need to understand the past to reckon with present realities in America
When he first learned that Juneteenth would be a federally recognized holiday, Jelani Cobb’s happiness was tempered by concern. He was worried that people might think that what happened in Texas in 1865—enslaved people learning two-and-a-half years after the fact that they had been freed under the Emancipation Proclamation—was an exceptional circumstance. But it wasn’t.
In his keynote address at Tufts’ Juneteenth Observation ceremony on June 17, Cobb highlighted the fact that in every circumstance where enslaved people made the transition into freedom, there were counter efforts and forces at play seeking to curtail that freedom, and those effects have implications on how we live today.
Cobb, a staff writer for the New Yorker, the Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, and incoming dean of the Columbia Journalism School, joined the ceremony via Zoom after travel issues kept him from attending in person.
“If anything, grappling with what Juneteenth is and was in Texas, should invite us into a bigger discussion of what emancipation was and the politics of it and the ways in which what happened in Texas were mirrored in what happened in the 10 other Confederate states,” said Cobb, who earned a doctorate in American history from Rutgers. “And the ways in which it happened in the 11 Confederate states was mirrored by what happened in the Northern states.”
The goal of the Juneteenth event at Tufts, which also featured readings, dance, and music, was to “take time to pause, reflect, and contextualize the purpose and legacy of this holiday within our modern struggle toward freedom,” said S. Rae Peoples, associate director for diversity and inclusion education for the Medford/Somerville and SMFA campuses and chair of the 2022 Juneteenth Planning Committee.
Understanding the History of Emancipation
To illustrate the complexity of emancipation in this country and its reach beyond our borders, Cobb began with the American Revolution.
“The question of emancipation emerges simultaneously with the question of American nationality,” Cobb said. “Those two things began at the same time... It is a conflict that begins with the beginning of the country itself.”
Enslaved people were offered their freedom for fighting alongside both British and American troops during the war. Approximately 5,000 fought alongside the Americans, and another 20,000 fought with the British, and were later relocated to other British colonial possessions like Nova Scotia.
After the war, Cobb said, a series of political events unfurled that included the abolishment of slavery in the North and eventual secession of states in the South, which culminated in the Civil War—a conflict with emancipation of the enslaved at its center, Cobb said—and which cost 700,000 lives out of a total of some 31 million.
When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1862, it was done so in an act of war by President Abraham Lincoln—and not necessarily to provide freedom, Cobb said. Its existence did not mean that all enslaved people could have freedom: It was written to support states that Lincoln wanted to keep in the Union, and to affect areas that were in rebellion against the Union.
“Many people were aware that the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued,” Cobb said. “They simply had no power to do anything about it. Their lives were not substantially affected, because they were surrounded by the forces of the Confederacy. And so, it’s not until Gordon Granger arrives in June of 1865, that the Union army is finally able to secure control of that massive land of Texas and impose emancipation.”
To permanently abolish slavery in the U.S., six months later the 13th Amendment was ratified.
In the years that followed, freedom would not come without extraordinary challenge for formerly enslaved people.
“The Emancipation Proclamation has all of its various military considerations and loopholes,” Cobb said. “The 13th Amendment has the loophole of emancipating people and abolishing slavery except for those individuals who have been duly convicted of a crime. This was not meant at the time to be a kind of trap door to re-enslave people, but it became one.”
Places that existed as slave plantations were reinvented as prisons—some of which still exist today, Cobb said, such as Angola penitentiary in Louisiana. Many people who were enslaved before 1865 found themselves imprisoned in the same place after 1865.
Learning From the Past to Look to the Future
Although the war ended more than 150 years ago, the impacts of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment are still felt by the Black and African American communities today.
“When we look at the landscape of our current society, all of our institutions—our founding institutions—yield disparities that reflect the racial hierarchy of those years,” Cobb said. “Our housing, our health care, our criminal justice, our education—in all those systems are disparities that disadvantage black people. And the policies and economics in this nation reflect these longstanding disparities, which in turn reflect the long reach of these ghosts of histories.”
Cobb said he doesn’t want people to use the Juneteenth holiday casually. He urged attendees to take Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as an example of what Juneteenth could be.
“If King Day is a day of service, I think that we would do well to have Juneteenth be a day of learning,” Cobb said.
“Rather than simply allow it to become another excuse for a summer barbecue,” he said, “we should use Juneteenth as a moment in which we courageously and directly grapple with and confront the difficult history of the United States as it pertains not only to slavery but to the multi-century effort to resist the end of slavery and the creation of equal society.”