As a child growing up Detroit’s Brewster Projects, Errol A. Henderson, Ph.D., never celebrated Juneteenth— but he was educated about the significance of the day and its traditions, which for decades in Black America have marked the observance of the end of U.S. slavery. And now, with Juneteenth recognized by the entire country, Henderson, a Penn State University professor and Wayne State University alumnus, is returning to WSU this month to speak not only about the importance of the day but about the real story behind it.
On June 15, Henderson, who earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Wayne State before earning his Ph.D. in political science from University of Michigan, will be the featured speaker at the university’s annual Juneteenth observation, his keynote entitled Did Slave Revolution Win the Civil War?
(“Juneteenth” comes from the amalgamation of “June 19,” the date on which, in 1865, enslaved Black people in Texas learned that they were free — two-and-a-half years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.)
Ahead of his lecture, Henderson, whose latest book, The Revolution will not be Theorized: Cultural Revolution in the Black Power Era, examines the relationship between black cultural revolution and black political revolution in the US, sat down for a wide-ranging interview that covered his upbringing in Detroit, the ongoing fight against racism, why an accurate understanding of Juneteenth is critical and much more.
Q: Can you explain what is important to understand about Juneteenth?
A: That Juneteenth needs to be associated with the Civil War. This is what is so key and what was so revolutionary about the Civil War. So much of what is lied about today goes all the way to the recognition of Confederate monuments rooted in the Civil War. Juneteenth is unintelligible without the Civil War. It is the notifications of Blacks in Texas that the Civil War had ended with a Union victory. Slaves were no longer chattel as property, they were freed.
Q: What does June 19th mean to you?
A: Well, it is the actual history of the country and especially that war. This is what I teach. To understand freedom in this country, one must understand events such as Juneteenth, because our notions of free are not found in The Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.
Q: While growing up in Detroit, did your family celebrate Juneteenth with the holiday traditions? When did you first learn about Juneteenth?
A: My mother is from Alabama, so that is how I heard about Juneteenth. I always knew about it, but we did not do any of the traditions. My parents instilled in me a lot of what people would call black history. During my younger years, the Detroit schools that I attended were wonderful. In those schools, Black history was an important part of our education, so that is another place that I was able to learn about Juneteenth.
Q: Why should Juneteenth be significant to Americans regardless of race?
A: It’s historical. It’s grounded. It is the actual history of the United States. It is not just Black history; it is just history.
Q: When it comes to teaching the history of Juneteenth, what does that look like? Do you believe it should be more about Juneteenth in textbooks in schools?
A: Sure. All those things! Just the way we teach other types of history. It is not difficult to do this. It’s straightforward. You will hear me say this at the presentation: White supremacism will not just teach you what to think, it will teach you how to think. Nowhere else do we have to go and say, “Dr. Henderson, how do we tell the truth?” But this is an important question! Just tell the truth! This is our history, not mentioning Juneteenth in the textbooks means we are not telling the whole truth, just part of it. If we want to teach Juneteenth in school, teach how we would do it for Thanksgiving. You do not have to tell young people the trauma, but I would have a slave narrative like how you would approach the Diary of Anne Frank. You can tell the slave narrative without the raping, burning and all — but eventually you will get to that. People need to know that Juneteenth is a celebration of the freedom earned by Black folks fighting for their freedom. That is important. It was not a gift given to them. We are essential to the Union victory!
Q: Why is celebrating Juneteenth more important now than ever?
A: Because there is an on-going movement now from Black Lives Matter to the level of consciousness of Americans and the ability to act on their consciousness that has been magnified through social media. This is what folks did not have in the 1960’s. Folks often forget that one reason we know so much in the South was because of television. Television was becoming much more accessible across classes including poor folks. So you could see the dogs in Birmingham. Now with social media the movement that is associated with it as well has pushed these issues of social justice that were hidden in the library in the stacks of dusty books, now they are right out front. This stuff is not hidden! Social media accentuates it and a new generation of younger folks that are assertive about their right to know the truth.
Q: There are celebrations everywhere, parades, festivals, drills. How will you recognize Juneteenth this year?
A: I am coming to Wayne State, my alma mater, that I have been coming to since I use to walk from the Brewster Projects! I would love for everyone to come out on that special day.
Q: Why does WSU’s observance matter?
A: Wayne State is doing the right thing by giving honor when it comes to Juneteenth. There was no Juneteenth when I was there, but people are learning and getting in where they fit in. Whether it is a festival or a small event, at least we are learning about Juneteenth and what the day means, so I am proud to know Wayne State is recognizing the day.
Q: Is there a key message you want your audience to take away from your Juneteenth keynote address?
A: Be patient with the process of people learning about Juneteenth. Be willing to suspend judgement until you have more information.