The Books Briefing: The Possibilities and Limits of Freedom

Juneteenth and emancipation in America: Your weekly guide to the best in books

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.”

📚 “Our Composite Nationality,” by Frederick Douglass
📚 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass
📚 “Lessons of the Hour,” by Frederick Douglass

One man’s story of escaping slavery
“On reading it over carefully, I also discover that it is in itself a stronger argument for the manhood of the negro than any which could be adduced by one not himself a freedman; for it is the argument of facts, and facts are the most powerful logic.”

📚 “The Freedman’s Story,” by William Parker

Celebrating Juneteenth in a moment of peril
“Different communities’ celebrations of emancipation are a bit like quilts, stitched together from patches of the past and present, the things carried and the things hoped for, built from cherished achievements and scraps alike. No two pieces are the same, but all that matters in the end is the warmth.”

📚 “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” by James Weldon Johnson
📚 The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson

Black-ish embraces the urgency of history
“[The episode] is … a consideration of a holiday that is not (yet) nationally celebrated—and, in that, also a meditation on cultural memory and national apology and monuments and flags and kneeling and history as something that is both shared among all Americans and extremely biased in its vision.”

🎥 “Juneteenth,” directed by Anton Cropper

Slavery made America
“I could not have understood 20th-century discrimination without understanding its 19th-century manifestations. My entry into this period was idiosyncratic and the reading list below reflects that. Again, nothing here is definitive. I can only show you the path I walked.”

📚 Battle Cry of Freedom, by James McPherson
📚 The Civil War and Reconstruction lecture series, by David Blight

📚 “The Economics of the Civil War,” Roger L. Ransom
📚 Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass
📚 Out of the House of Bondage, by Thavolia Glymph

About us: The Books Briefing will return to its regular Friday publishing schedule next week. This week’s newsletter is written by Tori Latham. The book sitting on her bedside table is Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid.

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