Leonard Pitts, Jr. on Juneteenth


In 1967, Nina Simone recorded a song called “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.” She sings in a tone lilting and wistful, fingers snapping, piano sweet and hopeful behind her, imbuing the idea of freedom with an air of sacred mystery. She sang like she really wanted to know, as, indeed, she likely did: What does it mean to be free?

That question was apropos to that moment of civil rights years and civil rights tears, new possibilities blooming, cities burning, Martin Luther King besieged and beset, yet dreaming still. For that matter, it is apropos to this moment of get your knee off my neck, America facing the hard truth of itself, NASCAR banning the Confederate flag, and pancake eaters waking up to the fact that, after 127 years, Aunt Jemima has gone to that big mixing bowl in the sky.

But Nina Simone’s question is most poignantly apropos to that moment in the spring and summer of 1865 when four million formerly enslaved African-Americans found themselves asking it all at once. The news came last to those in Galveston, Texas on June 19, two and a half years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, two months and ten days after a treaty signed at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia silenced the guns of the Civil War. Seven hundred and fifty thousand dead, great cities in ruins, and on a day future generations would celebrate as “Juneteenth,” African-Americans in Galveston joined those in South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, and even northern states like Illinois and Pennsylvania, all pondering that frightening, challenging, inspiring question. What does it mean to be free?

At about that same time, a black man named Sam Freeman was trudging through Tennessee, in the last stretch of a punishing walk that had begun two months before in Philadelphia. Sam, the protagonist of my novel, Freeman, was, like four million others, trying to construct a working understanding of what it meant to be free. And he had decided, instinctively, that it meant embarking upon this thousand-mile trek in search of Tilda, his still-enslaved wife, whom he hadn’t seen in 15 years. Having no idea where she was or if she was still alive or even if she wanted to see him, he set out just the same. Unbeknownst to him, Tilda was even at that moment, struggling to survive, having been kidnapped and dragged across the country by the white man who insisted he still owned her, no matter what the Yankees said.

What does freedom mean? At a low point, contemplating suicide as an escape from her miserable predicament, Tilda thinks grimly that “freedom takes many forms.”

But Freeman, like Juneteenth itself, is a celebration of the determination and stubborn hope it has always taken to be black in this country, to rise above—or simply trudge doggedly through—such bleak despair.

What does freedom mean? In the summer of 1776, a white slave owner named Jefferson wrote a document containing a great truth he didn’t really believe: “all men are created equal.” In that document, he implicitly defined freedom by talking about the lack thereof as experienced by him and his fellow white Englishmen.

He complained that the king of England “has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.” And that the king “has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.” And that the king “has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.”

Important matters, surely. But people like those Thomas Jefferson owned, people like Sam and Tilda, like Nina Simone, like 43 million African-Americans alive today, have always tended to—needed to—define freedom in terms less abstract than those, terms simpler, more visceral and real.

For us, freedom would be the ability to come and go and do and be, no chains on your wrist, no knee on your neck.

The celebrants of the original Juneteenth would surely agree with a character in Freeman who muses that no one understands freedom better than a slave. To put that another way, no one understands freedom better than those who have never had it before.

Find out more information on Freeman and purchase a copy here.

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