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Between Emancipation and Independence

This month, the nation observed Juneteenth— as of 2020, a national holiday commemorating the announcement of emancipation to the enslaved in Texas— two and a half years after the fact. In cities and towns across the country, Americans, mostly of African descent, held festivals, art exhibitions, dance and musical performances, and panel discussions in a rite performed for decades before it came to national prominence.

In my hometown, NYC, rituals are performed at the African Burial Ground, one of the largest and earliest cemeteries of enslaved Africans in the US, now a national monument in Lower Manhattan. It is in this location that African slaves were allowed to congregate and practice their cultural traditions of nighttime burials. Archaeologists estimate that over 20,000 burials exist in this seven-acre plot. Beneath towering skyscrapers, amidst construction sites and buildings crowded together, I wonder how they rest.

I first started going to Juneteenth celebrations at Coney Island in the 90s. In the spirit of traditional African culture and ritual, Djembe drums pulsated, and dancers offered up their prayers in movement. Brothers and sisters dressed in white and placed flowers in the waves to remember those who jumped, were thrown, or who died and were buried in the Atlantic during the Middle Passage.

NNYC: Dance to the Sea, © Chester Higgins Jr.

Mere weeks later, we celebrate the 13 colonies’ formal declaration of independence from the rule of King George III of England. It was ratified by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776 and established the USA as a sovereign nation (cookouts abound, grills blazing).

In 1852, the great orator Frederick Douglass spoke eloquently and scathingly in "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" Said Douglass, “I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.”

Frederick Douglass

But as we observe both of these annual holidays, it brings to my mind some of the mis-told and under-told aspects of independence and emancipation as it pertains to African Americans. Allow me to elaborate on what has been forgotten, and what it could mean for our future.

Abraham Lincoln’s address to Congress, commonly known as the Emancipation Proclamation, was actually issued in three parts. The first, a preliminary proclamation delivered to his Cabinet, was timed to be released after a significant Union Civil War victory. The Battle of Antietam served that purpose. Signed on September 23, 1862, it affirmed that if the rebels of the “slave states” did not end the fighting and rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebellious states would be declared free, and that war would continue to be prosecuted to restore the constitutional relation between the United States and each of the States.

Note: Beginning in 1861, Virginians who sided with the Union separated from the Confederacy and petitioned for admission to Congress as a state, with a constitution that included a plan for gradual emancipation. Lincoln signed the bill admitting West Virginia to the Union on December 31, 1862.

The September letter also stated that Lincoln would, upon the next meeting of Congress, again recommend the adoption of some practical measures, including to “tender pecuniary aid” to the states and the newly freed; and to colonize persons of African descent, with their consent, upon this continent, or elsewhere with the previously obtained consent of those governments.

That next meeting of Congress was December 1, 1862. In this 2nd annual message, Lincoln laid out in more detail the elements of compensation (AKA reparations): who would receive it and how the country would pay for it; and colonization: including regions in the continental US where freed bondsmen and women could live and engage in governance and commerce with the rest of the country.

Isisara Bey, Artistic Director

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