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A More Perfect Union

On Juneteenth, Cover

On Juneteenth
By Annette Gordon-Reed.

New York: Liveright, 2021.
148 pp. $15.95 hardcover.

Reviewed by
John Perryman

Annette Gordon-Reed, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in history for her ground-breaking research in The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, has written another important work, this one a personal exploration of history, race, Texas, and our newest national holiday (whose origins are Texan): Juneteenth. Born and raised in East Texas, Gordon-Reed knows the landscape well, and On Juneteenth offers a thoughtful look at both the holiday and her home state, which she believes to be a sort of “bellwether” for what the nation will eventually become—containing “nearly every major aspect of the story of the United States of America”—even if in exaggerated form. Comprised of six personal-narrative essays, which at times overlap, the book is a “look at history through the medium of personal memoir, a Texan’s view of the long road to Juneteenth, the events surrounding the event itself, what happened afterward, and how all this shaped life in Texas, my family’s life, and my own life.”

   In the best tradition of such collections, the essays here meander: there are reminisces on relatives, forays into important primary sources, and thoughtful considerations of pop culture. The most fascinating insight is the extent to which she claims the state’s past bears an uncanny resemblance to the founding years of the United States, “another era when triumph and tragedy were inexorably entwined.” Seeking to “[disentangle] those threads and [view] them critically,” Gordon-Reed has produced a must read for teachers of Texas literature and history. Thoughtful and at times heartbreaking, her latest book is testimony to her powers as historian and public intellectual.

   In its totality, Gordon-Reed’s book is a sort of apology for how one can love a state with a history of poorly treating one’s family and race. Her account is a compelling consideration of the complex relationship a person can have with place. She begins by exploring the implication of the three types that have dominated considerations of Texas identity through time: the Cowboy, the Rancher, and the Oilman. Each has usually celebrated a version of the white male, itself an act of exclusion whose psychological effect she explores. Largely missing in these considerations, which often were Hollywood productions (think Giant), are detailed depictions of the Texas slave owner, a type more common than the Rancher and Cowboy in East Texas. Tellingly, the first two of the types emerged from the state’s western side, a region demarcated by a dividing line based upon the significant topographical and annual rainfall changes that bisect the state just west of the I-35 corridor, creating two different cultures.

   Gordon-Reed posits that during the twentieth century, Texans sought to affirm their identity through connections with the frontier (thus as winners of the Indian Wars of the 1870s) and not the South (and thus not as losers of the Civil War). This allowed for a distancing from the Confederacy that civic leaders likely felt would assist the state’s future and economic growth. Here, her claim would be augmented by mentioning Light Cummins’s work in this field, particularly his essay History, Memory, and Rebranding Texas for the 1936 Centennial, in which he describes state’s decision to celebrate its western heritage rather than its Confederate ties, a distancing that was furthered by the selection of the Art Deco, and not antebellum, architectural style for the Centennial Exhibition’s main buildings. Yet the ties to the South were real. A fact to which our recently established national holiday bears witness.

   Nowhere were these ties more clearly articulated than in Texas’s founding documents, which she explores in Chapter Five: Remember the Alamo. These documents created a culture that embraced slavery and would support segregation and Jim Crow. When a young Gordon-Reed’s parents chose for her to be among the first in her hometown of Conroe to integrate its elementary schools in the1960s, she felt the resentment of neighbors, black and white, who disapproved. Now as an adult and professor of American history, Gordon-Reed asserts this childhood experience should have been unnecessary and would not have occurred had not the South, and the nation, willingly embraced “narrow constructions of Blackness,” constructions which supported racism and which she effectively dismantles in several chapters.

   The book’s fourth chapter is the most interesting. I wish it had been longer and more fully developed.  Here, Gordon-Reed sketches out the contours of Cynthia Ann Parker’s life, drawing a comparison with Sally Hemings (both victims of sorts of predation and violence), but she departs from the consideration before elaborating what could be deeply instructive insights. Her brief description of the plights of the Apache and the Alabama-Coushatta will remind readers that, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, tribes were in conflict with one another almost as much as with the United States Cavalry, and that a few even engaged in the trading of slaves.

   Gordon-Reed concludes Chapter Four by describing how Jefferson’s famous biographer, Dumas Malone, altered his understanding of his subject over the forty years he wrote about him, arriving at an understanding that can only be reached by a degree of “detachment,” a quality that has allowed Gordon-Reed to write about figures of the American founding who “did some things I admire” while also presiding over a country that enslaved African Americans . This quality, she maintains, has allowed her to affirm that “being a Black person then, and a Texan, are not in opposition.” Her ability to acknowledge this complexity, and reach a sort of peace with it, is compelling.

   Some might view this as an overly optimistic claim to make in the face of a Texas that clung to the myth of the Lost Cause, winning a major battle against Union forces even after Lee had formally surrendered and eventually frustrating Reconstruction efforts across the state. But as Gordon-Reed points out, the opposition to Reconstruction was institutionalized across the country, as well; in the early twentieth century, the scholarship of Columbia professor William Dunning provided cover for Southern entrenchment. The heartbreak caused by these efforts is made more effective by how Gordon-Reed personalizes examples of the injury they caused, describing how they played out in her family, affecting persons such as her great-great grandfather who registered to vote in Galveston in 1867, not long after Union General Gordon Granger issued General Order Number 3.

   Gordon-Reed focuses intensely on this in Chapter Six: how it not only informed Texas slaves of their freedom but served as a renunciation of the Republic of Texas’s founding documents. Despite facing violent opposition, Texas’s African American community presciently realized the significance of Granger’s order, moving quickly to formalize celebrations. In the early twentieth century, Black leaders in Houston bought land to create Emancipation Park to host such events; sadly, the larger populace would not formally acknowledge the date’s significance for years.

   And yet a hopefulness pervades each of the book’s 148 pages. Gordon-Reed concludes this final chapter with a powerful symbolic image, describing her family’s tradition of making tamales together during the holidays and how this affected her as a young girl. “This ritual was fitting,” she affirms, “and so very Texan. People of African descent and to be honest some of European descent, celebrating the end of slavery in Texas with dishes learned in slavery and a dish favored by ancient Mesoamerican Indians that connected Texas to its Mexican past; so much of Texas history brought together for this one special day.” Gordon-Reed provides an example of how the act of navigating history’s tragedies and triumphs can be transformed into a family tradition that binds generations together. This tradition seems to point a way forward for the state, revealing how it might more fully acknowledge and embrace its complex history.

John Perryman is the author of the story collections: Blood for Ghosts and Wait at Woods’ Edge.