Oxford, OhioThe Juneteenth holiday, commemorates the date enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas learned of their emancipation, more than two years after the proclamation was issued. The holiday has long been celebrated by African Americans. In 2021, President Joe Biden signed legislation establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Miami University will observe Juneteenth on Monday, June 19.

Rodney Coates, professor of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies in the Department of Global and Intercultural Studies at Miami University, provided a list of curated books to become better acquainted with the history and meaning of Junteenth.

Coates has selected three books that he references as voices of liberation and jubilation.  “A Voice from the South,” “The Souls of Black Folks,” and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

Coates provides a brief synopsis of each:

No voice is as proactive, clear, and poignant as that of Anna Julia Cooper, writing her classic, “A Voice from the South,”  21 years after the end of the Civil War, 142 years ago. Her message — the plight, reality, and future of Black people — depended upon the Black woman’s success. For too long, the Church and clergy, the politicians and educators, and even the Black man thwarted these efforts by placing constraints upon the Black woman’s hopes, dreams, and opportunities. Cooper’s “Voice” provides a clarion call not to look back with inflated conceit, but to glean wisdom from experiences, to capture the spiritual essence of our being and to look to the future with hope and trust. This Voice shrugged condescension and victimhood yet shouted determination and “the radical amelioration,” liberation, and regeneration of the Black woman and community. Cooper ends with hope, believing black women shall arrive at the “promised land.”

Almost a decade after Cooper’s “Voice” was published, W.E.B. Du Bois published “The Souls of Black Folks.” This collection of essays articulated Du Bois’ dreams toward an action plan for Black freedom in the 20th century. He began with a question, “What is it like to be a problem?” A problem complicated by prejudice, lawlessness, and ruthless competition. What is it like to be a Black and an American, two unreconciled selves, two paradoxes, two ends of a spectrum — in one body? Forty years after the promise of emancipation, freedom was still illusive to the freedman. Constantly vilified and condemned, over policed and undervalued, within just one generation, Blacks crafted institutions that provided escapes from the prison of poverty, mediocrity, and complacency. Yet, the soul of Black folks, the spiritual strivings of a people, was made manifest as they went from enslaved person to free, from forced laborers to skilled artisans and farmers. They created thousands of business people, clergy, teachers, and doctors in the process.

While Black history is marked by progress, resilience, and perseverance, it is easy to ignore the trials, tribulations, and suffering endured by many Blacks over the ages. Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” reminds us that it is not always a bed of roses. This is particularly true in this autobiographical work that traces a life often interrupted by tragedy, moving from kin to kin, grandparents to separated parents, and back to grandparents. Being the ugly duckling, battered and abused (sexually, mentally, and spiritually). But after being raped, pregnant, and disgraced, she continued onward. She did not allow these obstacles to drag her into hopelessness and despair. Head held high, she continued to pursue her path, gave birth to a marvelous son, graduated from high school, and the rest is history. So why can the caged bird sing? She dreams of freedom.  

Lastly, while reading and contemplating the meaning of the Juneteenth holiday, listen to “Blackbird” written by Paul McCartney and featured on the Beatles’ iconic White Album in 1968. A young McCartney was inspired to write the song after meeting civil rights pioneers Thelma Mothershed Wair and Elizabeth Eckford. Wair and Eckford are two members of the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine black students who faced discrimination and the lasting impact of segregation after enrolling in the all-white Little Rock Central High School in 1957, following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.

“Blackbird singing in the dead of night. Take these broken wings and learn to fly. All your life. You were only waiting for this moment to arise. Blackbird singing in the dead of night. Take these sunken eyes and learn to see. All your life. You were only waiting for this moment to be free.” McCartney (1968).

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