Tuesday, June 21, 2011


It was my birthday on Sunday, which was nice, although it does tend to happen every year (amazingly enough ;-) I turned 38, ate cake, celebrated with family, and received much costume jewellery from my daughters, who chose it themselves.

However, I also discovered recently that June 19th, which I have always thought of as just my birthday, is a very significant day in American history: Juneteenth, the day on which the ending of slavery is commemmorated.

Although an Australian by birth and a mixed-up-European by ancestry (with Scots, Irish, French, Jewish and Spanish forebears), I have studied American history, earning my Masters degree with a study of Puritan narratives of captivity. I've never made a special study of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, but I thought I had the same general familiarity with them that any student of the Americas would have. After all, I've tutored Modern American History (Civil War - 1980) at university level in the past. (The distant past, granted ... last century, as my eldest daughter is wont to proclaim with high incredulity when talking about The Things I Did Before I Had Kids).

Yet somehow in all my reading and all my teaching, the significance of June 19th had passed me by. It was on June 19th 1865 that Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and slavery was over. (If you are at all familiar with American history, you might notice that this is well over 2 years after the war ended and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was made on 1 January 1863. There are many theories as to why this delay happened, all of them unpleasant but probably none of them surprising).

Being neither a person of colour nor an American, I don't feel I can speak with any great wisdom about what Juneteenth and its celebration means. I can say, that as a white Australian to whom the incomplete state of reconciliation in my own country is on ongoing source of pain, that days to acknowledge the darkness of the past and mark some progress from it are valuable. They have meaning, they can matter in the hearts of people.

I told my girls that my birthday was shared with the day that people in America stopped being enslaved. My 6 year old turned her head to me and said, "That's VERY good, Mum."

The 8 year old, being a little more nuanced in her understanding, said thoughtfully, "I don't suppose everything was just all right, straight away, though, was it, Mum?"

"No," I agreed. "It was just the start. It isn't anywhere near finished yet."

But celebrating the start? Ah, that's worth doing. Yes, it is.

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