Annette Gordon-Reed opens On Juneteenth by reflecting on her conflicted emotions about Juneteenth becoming a national celebration. It is, she notes, a distinctly Texan holiday, since it commemorates the day in June 1865 when Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to announce the end of legalized slavery in the United States—two months after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. It’s also a deeply personal holiday, one that Black Texans have celebrated with family and friends ever since Granger read out his proclamation. And yet, Gordon-Reed acknowledges, it’s also a profoundly American holiday, just as Texas is perhaps the most profoundly American state.
This ambivalence inspires Gordon-Reed to explore the significance of this holiday within the broader context of Texan history. On Juneteenth is a collection of historical essays, ranging from the Spanish conquest to the present, that investigates what it means to be Texan. Against the background of the archetypal white cowboy and the ten-gallon hat oilman, Gordon-Reed demonstrates how the history of Texas is also the history of African Americans, Native Americans and Mexican Americans. Indeed, slavery was integral to the formation of the Republic of Texas—as well as the state of Texas. Understanding this truth, Gordon-Reed argues, is key to understanding the role racism continues to play in Texas and, by extension, the nation.
As the Carl W. Loeb Professor of history at Harvard, Gordon-Reed is no stranger to illuminating the uncomfortable truths of our past. She won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, a groundbreaking multigenerational history of the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, an enslaved African American woman.
On Juneteenth is written on a smaller and more personal scale than her previous work, but it is no less powerful. Gordon-Reed’s essays seamlessly merge history and memoir into a complex portrait of her beloved, turbulent Texas, revealing new truths about a state that, more than any other, embodies all the virtues and faults of America.