The Current

Great Music Lives Here
Listener-Supported Music
Donate Now

Professor Keith Mayes: celebrations like Juneteenth 'speak to what it means to be Black in the United States'

Keith Mayes is an expert on African American history, primarily from the 1960s to the present.
Keith Mayes is an expert on African American history, primarily from the 1960s to the present.Patrick O'Leary
  Play Now [10:47]

by Jill Riley

June 19, 2020

To commemorate Juneteenth, Morning Show host Jill Riley invited Dr. Keith Mayes, a professor in the department of African-American and African studies at the University of Minnesota, to have a conversation about the history of the holiday, as well as the necessity for more extensive Black history to be present in the curriculum taught in K-12 classrooms.

JILL RILEY: Dr. Keith Mayes, how are you doing?

KEITH MAYES: I'm doing OK.

I'm glad that you are on the line. Coming up for the Coffee Break, we're going to get to a bunch of songs of the topic of freedom because, really, that's what today is all about and what today is celebrating. There is such a heightened awareness of Juneteenth. I wonder if you could start of by giving some background and history to Juneteenth.

Juneteenth is a celebration that began on June 19, 1865. It was a commemoration or holiday that began when General Granger came into Galveston, Texas, on that day to announce to many of the enslaved Africans that the war was essentially coming to an end and that they were free; they no longer had to toil on plantations.

Although, there had been something called the Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued on September 22, 1862, but it, of course, went into effect on January 1, 1863. Many of the slaves in the South had not received word of that, because they were either in remote locations, the Confederate military effort was maybe not as pronounced in certain areas, the Union army may not have come through, so by the time they did come through, as the war was closing down, they ran across many Africans who were still enslaved on a lot of plantations in East Texas, and they proclaimed that slavery had ended. That was the day that African Americans in that location began to celebrate something that was called Jubilee Day, in the beginning, and then it turned into Juneteenth. The first celebration was June 19, 1866, a year after.

We have to think about the time, the late 1800s, and it's not like information was able to spread like wildfire. People were relying on each other to pass information, and not all of the information always got passed. There's that question of, "How did it take so long between the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth?" It's a pretty complicated history there.

Yeah, and in the day of social media that we live in now, we just can't imagine — we can't quite fathom how information would have traveled that slow, but just think about being in a rural part of a country, in a state where you have hundreds of acres of agricultural fields and plantations, and you are hemmed in there as a worker and not really receiving any information. You may have, actually, received glimpses of what was going on, but not really, certainly not information that would impact your freedom and your daily life.

You can imagine what happened when many, many African Americans who were enslaved received the news of being free. They just couldn't believe it. They had to test their freedom by maybe going to the next plantation and seeing if it was true, walking around, moving out and about. We think of those as mundane activities, but those were revolutionary acts on a part of the people who were enslaved for hundreds of years. Just the ability to go about [their] business, that was radical. Of course, this was in the age of print media, but no broadcast media, and certainly no social media, so yes, news traveled very slowly.

Here we are in the year 2020. There is such a heightened awareness of this holiday right now.

Yes. It's so fascinating to me that commemorations — I call it the Black holiday tradition, and Juneteenth is just one of many, what we call "freedom days." There were days that were associated with January 1 and September 22. There were days associated with great heroic figures in Black history, and as you get into the 20th century, you start to find holidays like Black History Month, which was first Negro History Week, and then Martin Luther King Day, Kwanzaa… These kinds of celebrations are important because they do speak to what it means to be Black in the United States.

What's great about them, or maybe not so great, depending on how you argue the question, [is that] we can have an annual conversation about race in his country, about African-Americans, about the plight of the people who are still experiencing racism at a very high rate. The nice thing about holidays and commemoration is that we will have another opportunity, the next year, to have that same conversation. You see this with Martin Luther King Day. You see this with Kwanzaa. You see this with Black History Month, and all those people say, "They minimize it. It's only 28 days. It's only a day. It's only a week. It's not enough time. Not enough moments are given to African Americans to talk about their history and their experience in the United States." It's perennial. It's annual, and it's going to come around again, to have these conversations.

The mere fact that the murder of George Floyd took place on Memorial Day, three weeks before Juneteenth, inevitably, we were going to have a conversation about police violence, historical inequalities and disparities. We're going to keep that conversation going throughout the year as we hit these important on the calendar.

Juneteenth and the conversation about the holiday and it's spirit is very celebratory.

Yes. Yes it is. Many of the holidays are. You gather in the community. Of course, you engage in communication and dialogue. You talk about the past, the present, the future. You have food. It's a very festive atmosphere, as well as it being something that's reflective about where we were yesterday, where we are today, and where we're going tomorrow.

I certainly remember learning about the Emancipation Proclamation in school. I was in elementary school in the '80s and early '90s, and I don't ever remember having a conversation or it being a part of the curriculum to talk about Juneteenth. The hope is, going forward, that it won't just be this year, that there's a heightened awareness, that these kind of conversations and this history can be told in classrooms.

Yes. I think that that's one of the reasons why there's a push for ethnic studies in the K-12 classrooms. I've been involved in that in the last few years. Various districts in the Twin Cities metro area are trying to change the curriculum so that it can be more reflective of the people who live in the Twin Cities, and whose kids go to these schools. You're right. If we find any critical history or uncritical history of people of color, it's often those watershed moments that we've come to know: The Emancipation Proclamation, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and not really even diving deeply into those subjects, because there's a lot more to know than what they give you on the surface. Certainly, there's nothing that would be akin to a comprehensive study of the people and their experience in the curriculum, and so we have to much better when it comes to that because we are talking about American history, and American history includes all the groups that are here.

I always say that people don't realize that people of color have been in the United States as long, if not longer, than most white people. African American history stretches all the way — we just celebrated last year our 400-year anniversary, 1619 to 2019. That's 400 years. It's 401 years in 2020. Same thing with Asian Americans and Natives, who obviously go back further than anybody. People of color built America. They are responsible for building the country, but you would not see that reflected in the curriculum to any large extent. We have to change that.

There are stories to be told about, let's just say, the American Industrial Revolution. [There were] people that participated in that scientific, technological revolution who were Black and brown. They may reduce Black history in the Industrial Revolution to Black inventors, and minimize it. They won't say that the larger contribution that Black folks made to every single major development in U.S. history is there, if you look for it. Of course, the reason why we have something called African American history, Native history, and so forth, is because those narratives have been left out of U.S. history. Hence, we need these parallel, separate histories, but if we really told the true story of the United States, we wouldn't even need them.

Keith Mayes - University of Minnesota faculty page