For a nation that venerates the throwing off of tyranny the way the United States does at the Fourth of July, the end of a far greater repression of human life and dignity goes largely uncelebrated.
The traditional founding event came in 1776 and has been endlessly recycled in the culture with fireworks, readings of the Declaration of Independence, parades, appliance sales, a massive bicentennial, and even on Broadway. But for millions of Americans who are the descendants of the enslaved, the most-told stories of the breakaway from England ring hollow. The Boston Tea Party, taught in schools as a seminal moment, was not even about tea exactly, but rather over an import tax.
Slavery was one of the cornerstones of the establishment of the United States and the end of this most fundamental form of tyranny should be thought of as the most important victory of them all.
The sad truth is most Americans know little of the actual development of the colonies and that slavery was inseparable from their economic success. Now. as a period of reckoning about police violence directed toward black people has gripped the culture, it is also a moment to ask how we as a nation got this way.
There are innumerable ironies to how we think about the past. Consider that the biggest secular holiday for Americans is Thanksgiving, rooted in the challenging but ultimately successful establishment of a religious separatist colony by people who had felt unwelcome in England. And, as far as taxes go, Fish Hooks Mulford, East Hampton’s early-18th- century firebrand, is remembered as a hero for sailing to the mother country to complain about the royal governor’s levy on whale oil. It is worth pointing out here too that there is circumstantial evidence that Mulford himself held others in chattel slavery. Relatively few New Yorkers know that legal slavery even existed in the North, much less that it finally faded away only about three decades before the first shots of the Civil War.
Now is the moment for Juneteenth to become a national holiday. But, whether it is June 19 or not is beside the point. The debate that a move by state legislatures or the House of Representatives would spark would shed light on all of this, that slavery was one of the cornerstones of the establishment of the United States and that the end of this most fundamental form of tyranny — not having the human right to decide the course of one’s own life — should be thought of as the most important victory of them all. A national holiday to mark the end of slavery would be a start to acknowledge a debt to black Americans that can never be fully repaid.