Books for Juneteenth on Juneteenth

If I was a competent book blogger or reviewer I would have put together some intelligent thematic thought for today’s holiday.  Heck, I have the day off so not having the time isn’t an excuse.

Instead I really struggle composing reviews for books that are complex and multifaceted; or ones I don’t have a simple reaction too or whose point I can articulate quickly.

On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed, for example.

Weaving together American history, dramatic family chronicle, and searing episodes of memoir, Annette Gordon-Reed’s On Juneteenth provides a historian’s view of the country’s long road to Juneteenth, recounting both its origins in Texas and the enormous hardships that African-Americans have endured in the century since, from Reconstruction through Jim Crow and beyond. All too aware of the stories of cowboys, ranchers, and oilmen that have long dominated the lore of the Lone Star State, Gordon-Reed―herself a Texas native and the descendant of enslaved people brought to Texas as early as the 1820s―forges a new and profoundly truthful narrative of her home state, with implications for us all.

Combining personal anecdotes with poignant facts gleaned from the annals of American history, Gordon-Reed shows how, from the earliest presence of Black people in Texas to the day in Galveston on June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger announced the end of legalized slavery in the state, African-Americans played an integral role in the Texas story.

Reworking the traditional “Alamo” framework, she powerfully demonstrates, among other things, that the slave- and race-based economy not only defined the fractious era of Texas independence but precipitated the Mexican-American War and, indeed, the Civil War itself.

Despite reading it twice, and underlining passages throughout, I just could not pull together a coherent review in any serious way. To be fair, I don’t have the knowledge or history chops to review the argument about Texas.  But instead of a more serious review, I offer my quick take from Goodreads.

A mix of personal and historical reflections centered on Juneteenth, this was an interesting read. As someone with a background in history, I appreciated her perspective and enjoyed the way she attempted to flush out her own feelings and approach to history and the complex and difficult issue of race and slavery in America.

At times it felt too thin, like it could have dug a little deeper into the history. The arguments, such as they are, come tangentially and through a mix of history and family stories. When I first saw it in the bookstore I was hoping for a short history of the event and subsequent holiday but enjoyed this book anyways. A quick and thought provoking read that brings a personal element to this day and its context.

In 2021 I also read Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison:

From the author of bestselling Invisible Man— the classic novel of African-American experience—this long-awaited second novel tells an evocative tale of a prodigal of the twentieth century. Brilliantly crafted, moving, and wise, Juneteenth is the work of an American master.

“Tell me what happened while there’s still time,” demands the dying Senator Adam Sunraider to the itinerate preacher whom he calls Daddy Hickman. As a young man, Sunraider was Bliss, an orphan taken in by Hickman and raised to be a preacher like himself. Bliss’s history encompasses the joys of young southern boyhood; bucolic days as a filmmaker, lovemaking in a field in the Oklahoma sun. And behind it all lies a how did this chosen child become the man who would deny everything to achieve his goals?

Here is the master of American vernacular at the height of his powers, evoking the rhythms of jazz and gospel and ordinary speech.

Again, from Goodreads:

I really struggled with this book. Started it on Kindle but finished it on audiobook. The production was quite good but the stream of consciousness nature of the book made it really hard to follow. I think this is a book that you would be better off reading after you have read more Ellison and/or this era and genre. Of course, it was an unfinished novel that was published posthumously so perhaps the jigsaw nature of the prose and/or story is not just me. I enjoyed it as an experience, as part of expanding my knowledge but not necessarily as a novel.

Apologies for not engaging with these books in the way they deserved but I thought it was worth posting to note the holiday and my having wrestled with some of its history and literature.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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