Weekend Open Thread: Juneteenth and the Persistent Fear of Slave Revolts





Today is “Juneteenth,” anniversary of the 1865 day in Texas when slaveholders there belatedly lost their slaves. Under U.S. law, they had lost their slaves three years earlier, when the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect. But even after the Civil War had ended in Confederate defeat, meaning that no one could dispute their freedom, slaveholders had taken the precaution of not informing their slaves of that development. for almost two more months, when Union troops arriving in Galveston forced their hand.

Today is the anniversary of the day when word got to the slaves anyway. Juneteenth thus stands, among other things, for the proposition that slaveholders will take advantage of their slaves for as much as they can, and for as long as they can, whether or not authorized by law, until they are forcibly stopped.

The next century after Juneteenth testifies to the proposition that slaveholders and their ideological descendants, when denied the ability to engage in slavery outright, will use whatever approaches and mechanisms they can to retain or reassert the benefits — financial, social, and sexual, among others — that slavery had provided them. Slaveholders are not stupid people; they are often well-versed both in the formal understanding of law and the less formal understanding of the establishment and deployment of power beyond the law. They are very very unhappy at having lost their slaves. They resent it; they long for its return, to whatever degree possible, even by some other name.

One such name for the revival of the substance of slavery was “Jim Crow”; another is “White Supremacy”; another was “Freedom of Contract”; today it is “Freedom of Religion.” The latter two are perfectly good legal and philosophical concepts, of course, that have been perverted towards the particular end of keeping subordinated people down. If you apply the term “slavery” to both the formal institution itself and the attempts to recapture its benefits to would-be slaveholders through coercion and duress, you have a perfectly good term for explaining why slavery is seen as necessary: because, without it, the slaves will revolt.

Thomas Jefferson, our dashing and intellectual Founding Father, had some bad moments during his Presidency, but none was worse than this: three decades after the American Revolution, a second colonial revolution took place in the Western Hemisphere, this time against France. This was not a Revolution of (largely) slaveholders, like ours; it was a revolution of slaves, led by Touissant L’Overture, in the new island nation of Haiti. You might think that Jefferson and the nation he led would have welcomed yet another assertion of freedom from even greater tyranny than the American colonies had known, but you would be wrong. Jefferson blew a gasket, lost his nut, was reduced to mad chattering about the dangers — hell, the horrors, of a slave revolt in our neighborhood. Would this give our slaves similar notions and aspirations! Intolerable! God spare us from a good example!

The thinking is along these lines: Let an enslaved man up from the ground, release him from his chains, and he may well kill you for what you’ve done to him and his. It’s entirely conceivable. Let a woman freed from slavery no longer fear rape and beatings and violent retaliation against her children, and what keeps her from slipping poison into your stew, or from slitting your throat while you sleep? Slaves and their descendants must therefore be kept in line. Kneeling in line, in fact; fearful of what will happen to them and theirs if they step out of line. Don’t tell them that they’re free until you have to. Get another couple of months out of them, until Juneteenth comes. Don’t give them the chance for their righteous and furious revenge.

Isn’t that what unjustified police shootings are about? Police officers are very worried, VERY worried, that some Black man or Native American (and of course this now extends to Latinos and beyond) will kill them out of, in part, indignation and resentment at the likelihood that the police will kill them. So they don’t comply. They don’t immobilize themselves, they don’t prostrate themselves and leave themselves open to easy fatal attack in a manner known for geologic ages in the animal kingdom. They challenge authority, they run, they try to get away — “TO DO WHAT?,” the police ask themselves as they unholster their guns. It can’t be anything good for the people tasked with settling them down. And so a cell phone or wallet is seen as a handgun, a child is seen as an adult, a hand at the side of a running youth is seen as grasping for a weapon from a waistband.

Resistance. Slave revolt. We cannot have it. We know that slaves have a right to revolt. That just makes it worse.

Shoot them down. Shut them down. Keep them down. Keep them ignorant of their rights. Juneteenth. A Charleston church.

This is your Weekend Open Thread. Talk about that or whatever else you’d like, within reasonable bounds of decency and discretion.

(A companion and sequel to this post will appear later.)

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)