The Significance of Juneteenth
It matters more than we know for reasons we may not see
As we celebrate Juneteenth this year we will no doubt here a great deal about owning our past. But what does that mean?
To answer that question, I would like to explore an alternative way of looking at the history of slavery in America, and more broadly in the Western world.
Owning our past is often looked at in a one-dimensional fashion. We are told to remember the horrors of the institution of slavery which still existed when our country was founded. But that seems odd because those horrors are by no means unique to America, or to the West. Slavery, as well as other forms of oppression, have existed as long as humans have existed, and have been nearly universal across cultures and generations. So owning up to our past seems incomplete if we stop with the mere existence of the institution, or the existence of any oppression for that matter. And that is where I think the celebration of Juneteenth has tremendous value.
Juneteenth is a reminder that our story has a turning point. But that turning point wasn’t simply a moment of national repentance. Together with other Western nations like Great Britain, it was a departure from the ways of humankind which had existed throughout history, which had never before been seriously questioned, let alone outright rejected on moral grounds.
Economist and social scientist Thomas Sowell says it succinctly:
“Of all the tragic facts about the history of slavery, the most astonishing to an American today is that, although slavery was a worldwide institution for thousands of years, nowhere in the world was slavery a controversial issue prior to the 18th century. People of every race and color were enslaved — and enslaved others. White people were still being bought and sold as slaves in the Ottoman Empire, decades after American blacks were freed….
…You could research all of the 18th century Africa or Asia or the Middle East without finding any comparable rejection of slavery there. But who is singled out for scathing criticism today? American leaders of the 18th century.”
— Thomas Sowell (Source: The Thomas Sowell Reader)