Every generation will, inevitably, refurbish the present's relation to the past. That was done handily on Saturday, at Phoenixville's celebration of Juneteenth.
There are few remembrances so filled with the complexities and ironies of the event commemorated as Juneteenth. Unlike other events so elevated, there is little myth surrounding its story.
What is celebrated is a matter of simple fact: on June 19, 1865, Texas slaves' emancipation was finally revealed.
Embedded in that sheer fact of an event is the history of the slave trade on this continent, the history of the Middle Passage, the history of the bondage of one people to another and the varieties of violence to individuals, families, and communities that enabled its long life. Embedded in the event is the history of a war fought to maintain a constitutional union of states, but for which that most peculiar of institutions was the provocation and second end.
Embedded, too, are unmistakable ironies. The emancipation had been accomplished by executive proclamation in time of domestic war, a singular act of political audacity that in legal fact freed few at the time it was issued, but in political reality freed all. It would take the Thirteenth Amendment to provide full cure; but without the Proclamation - the result of a president playing elegant political chess when the opposition was still playing checkers - the Thirteenth may well have been long and tragically delayed.
And it took two years after the Proclamation, two full months after the war that was fought was ended, and two full months after the assassination of that Proclamation's author, for Texas slaves to know the truth. Why so long? What exercises of sloth or historical benign neglect, what quiet conspiracies, lived in those two years?
It was a profound political moment for this nation, and, in its facts, a profoundly human moment as well. One that put an end to a strident form of inhumanity.
It was that fresh start, the beginning of a new era in which slavery would no longer play any part that was so well celebrated in town on Saturday.
At the pre-celebration session at the Colonial Theater, a play re-enacted the story. The play traced slavery's history and its nature, in contours familiar: the slavemasters, the nature of daily life on Southern plantations, the revolts and resistances, the abolitionists, the Underground Railroad.
It may be a familiar story, but the play was a purposeful rehearsal of what needs rehearsing: the facts of our history that, however we might wish to sequester them to "the past," will not go away. It may be familiar, but not necessarily so for the seven and ten-year-olds in the seats in front of me. It is a story that needs retelling, to prevent it from receding into abstraction or myth.
But, again, while the play did its duty in telling the facts, its strength was in telling so clearly that the event of emancipation could become the centerpiece of the tale. From that perspective, the story was about freedom and its coming.
I have quoted Isak Dinesen in this forum before: "All sorrows can be borne if one tells a story about them." While that may be true, this play demonstrated that all joys can be celebrated if one tells a story about them, as well. This was an occasion of joy. A play about the end of one story, and the beginning of a new one.
In what ways that new "freedom" could be something more than just "not slavery" is a different story, one for which we do not yet have an end. We leave the play with the possibility of labor paid for in wages, of forty acres and a mule. We know about the variety of ways in which those wages were paid (and not), and about the ultimate paucity of acres and mules. We know that the era begun in 1865 was not even completed a century later in the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
Freedom from slavery did not define some freedom to. Those freedoms only slowly grew as matters of political and social practice. The barriers are still real. And there are still workplace plantations.
But that, of course, was not the story for that day. If those matters were not taken up because they were not relevant to the play's limited purpose, they were not apparent either in the joyous festival of food and music that followed - and lasted through the afternoon - in Andre Thornton Park. It was itself a joy.
Two other notes are important to that play's presentation. The first is that one significant actor in the story was not represented. Mr. Lincoln was referred to only by implication, and as "the Executive." It was an especially good touch - because the story is so frequently told only as part of the story of a man who has attracted his own special sets of myths. He would have been the first to say that the story was about slavery and emancipation, not about him. He would have appreciated his own exclusion.
The second note is that it was, well, a very low-budget affair. One consequence, a happy consequence indeed, was that plastic shopping bags substituted for burlap, plastic buckets for wooden. The performers might not have known this beforehand, but those substitutions themselves helped, by their very current ordinariness, to translate the past experience it was portraying into something very much present.