Reviewed by Jon Tracey
Thanks to current discussions of inequality and increased reflection on the past, Juneteenth has grown from a Texas tradition to one that has garnered attention across the nation. This week, it has even become a federal holiday. Annette Gordon-Reed’s On Juneteenth presents the event’s uniquely Texas origins, since June 19th, 1865 marked Major General Gordon Granger’s announcement of emancipation in Texas, while also hinting at national significance. Best known for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, for which she received the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in History, Gordon-Reed is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard University and an accomplished writer. This book, however, is a departure from traditional history books; it is part memoir, part Texas history, and part reflection on heroic myths.
On Juneteenth is split into six chapters, each separate yet still connected by these overall themes of race, memoir, and memory. “This, Then, Is Texas” serves as an overview of the complex history of one of the nation’s largest states and historically home to indigenous, Hispanic, black, and white communities. This is key, since much of the work is a history and reflection on Texas, and useful for readers (like myself) without close ties to the state. It is followed by “A Texas Town,” which is a memoir on her hometown, Conroe, and the racial divides she experienced. “Origin Stories: Africans in Texas” presents what you’d expect from a chapter of that title, while exploring how nation-oriented histories left out the stories of many groups that called that area home. “People of the Past and Present” begins with a return to memoir then picks up that thread of Texas’s many different communities.
The final two chapters were the ones that resonated most with me. “Remember the Alamo” is a masterful work on memory, looking at American and Texan myths of gallant foundings that brushed aside many individuals, groups, and stories. Her look at mythmaking, the cowboy, and the West works clearly with Heather Cox Richardson’s argument on myths in her 2020 How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. “On Juneteenth” then returns to Granger’s General Order No. 3, which stated, in part, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” Gordon-Reed quotes from the Declaration of Independence, Texan founding documents, and Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech” to show just how meaningful a change this was for Texas before providing an overview of the Reconstruction Era in the state.
On Juneteenth is a short book, coming it at just above 140 small 4.25” by 7.25” pages. It isn’t a traditional academic book; you won’t find lengthy descriptions and footnotes. In addition to the easily digestible size, her writing style flows clearly; it’s easy to fly through most of the work on a warm afternoon in a folding lawn chair. The decision to omit footnotes and write for a general audience doesn’t mean Gordon-Reed skipped research, however. Though much of the work draws from her personal experiences, it also boasts a respectable list of works consulted that doubles as a list of follow-up reading. It fits well within this selected literature too, contextualizing what exactly Juneteenth can mean.
Gordon-Reed writes that “echoes of the past remain, leaving their traces in the people and events of the present and future.” On Juneteenth is a highly readable and accessible way to begin to reflect on complicated and layered pasts in the United States. Throughout the book, she grapples with the long history of Texas as well as the questions of what makes it special and how she could love a place with so many “difficulties” in its history. Gordon-Reed concludes that “Love does not require taking an uncritical stance towards the object of one’s affections. In truth, it often requires the opposite. We can’t be of real service to the hopes we have for places – and people, ourselves included – without a clear-eyed assessment of their (and our) strengths and weaknesses.” Perhaps we could all think that way when we write histories about that which we love.