Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating when enslaved Americans in Texas learned of their freedom—two and half years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became effective—offers a moment for reflection. Tomorrow it occurs amid the fog of a pandemic that is disproportionately killing black people and renewed protests against the brutality that police inflict on black Americans—emphasizing the contingencies of the “freedom” granted with the end of slavery in the United States. During a similarly fraught moment two years ago, when the Voting Rights Act seemed deeply imperiled, Vann R. Newkirk II explored the growing popularity of Juneteenth festivities and how they’re often tied to feelings of insecurity rather than victory. The ABC sitcom Black-ish similarly examined the holiday in an episode that was both educative and critical of the hypocrisy of American memory.
Abolition was one of the founding ideals of The Atlantic. And though we’ve published “works that have improved the broad understanding of injustice in America,” we also recognize that we’ve given space to “works that furthered ideas and theories that ultimately were proved wrong or harmful,” as Gillian B. White writes in her editor’s note for our new reader on race and racism in America, “How Did We Get Here?” The collection is a good starting point for those seeking to engage with historical and analytical texts. Included are a look at Frederick Douglass’s pluralist future of human equality in a post–Civil War United States and the first-person account of William Parker, who escaped from slavery and won his rights as a free man. Also featured in the collection is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations,” which he accompanied with a reading list of the books and other works that taught him about the price of enslavement in this country.
Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.
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What We’re Reading
Frederick Douglass’s vision for a reborn America
“The aspiration that a postwar United States might slough off its own past identity as a pro-slavery nation and become the dream of millions who had been enslaved, as well as many of those who had freed them, was hardly a modest one.”