In Honor of JuneteenthMeet Dr. Elizabeth Hinton
Happy Juneteenth! Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day—June 19th commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Here, we talk to Yale historian Dr. Elizabeth Hinton about its important cultural and historical significance.
I’ve been drawn to history for as long as I can remember. As a kid I would beg my parents to tell me about the “olden times” of their childhoods and of their parents and grandparents’ lives. I was trying to understand how I came to be and to make sense of the world around me. The history I was exposed to, from elementary to graduate school, showed me how the past could help us find solutions to contemporary problems and how this knowledge could be a weapon in the struggle for justice. When I started doing my own research and experienced the thrill of historical discovery, I knew I wanted to do this for a living. I’m an archive rat and I love to write, so this is the perfect job for me.
Juneteenth honors the end of slavery in the United States. Ever since June 19th, 1865, when the union army arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas to enforce abolition in the last place where slavery is thought to have existed, Black families have been gathering to commemorate emancipation. Now it’s a national holiday that invites us to reflect on the darkest aspects of this nation’s past instead of hiding from or distorting history. We should enjoy the day off, but it’s bittersweet. As we celebrate freedom and progress we should be reminded of how far this nation still must go to truly realize its founding principles.
The greatest work of American history is W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America. Although Du Bois doesn’t discuss Juneteenth, his vision for what the United States could have been, and what it still could be, captures the stakes of the holiday better than any other. Right now I’m loving America, Goddam: Violence, Black Women, and the Struggle for Justice, by the brilliant feminist historian Treva B. Lindsey. She seamlessly fuses history and personal experience to offer a powerful reflection on the way racism and misogyny have shaped Black women’s lives over time. If nonfiction’s not your thing, Ann Petry’s harrowing 1946 novel The Street—the first book by a Black woman to sell more than a million copies—is a powerful indictment of the limits of equality and justice in America.
You can’t move forward if you don’t know how you got to where you are. If you want to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again, or repeating unhealthy patterns, you have to dig deep within yourself to learn what went wrong and begin changing your behavior. It’s the same thing with history, just on a collective scale. We study the past so we can understand our present circumstances to create a better future, for our children and our children’s children. History doesn’t have all the answers to the big questions, but it’s the best place to begin looking for them.