President's Blog: On Juneteenth

June 15, 2021

On Friday of this week, Princeton will observe Juneteenth as an official University holiday.  Princeton University first recognized the holiday last year.  We announced last month that we would honor Juneteenth annually as a standing University holiday.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day that enslaved Black people in Texas learned that they were free.  It is an occasion to celebrate the end of slavery and to renew our commitment to America’s ongoing quest for a genuinely equal and inclusive society.

For those who, like me, did not grow up marking Juneteenth, Annette Gordon-Reed’s recent book, On Juneteenth, provides an excellent and readable discussion of its origins and significance.

Professor Gordon-Reed is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Harvard.  She is also from Texas, where Juneteenth has been a major occasion in the Black community since the end of the Civil War.  Her graceful book weaves together personal memoir and historical learning to tell stories of racism, struggle, hope, and achievement.  It reminds me of the moving and beautiful Baccalaureate Address that Ruth Simmons, another native Texan, delivered to the Class of 2021.

In the coda to her book, Professor Gordon-Reed notes that, given the hardship and injustice that she describes, some readers may be surprised by her evident love for Texas.  She responds with these words, which are the last in the book:

“Love does not require taking an uncritical stance toward the object of one’s affections.  In truth, it often requires the opposite.  We can’t be of real service to the hopes we have for places—and people, ourselves included—without a clear-eyed assessment of their (and our) strengths and weaknesses.  That often demands a willingness to be critical, sometimes deeply so.  How that is done matters, of course.  Striking the right balance can be exceedingly hard. I hope I’ve achieved the proper equilibrium.”

I would say that she has.  Indeed, her wise and humane book is a guide not just to the meaning of Juneteenth, but also to how we can love, with both genuine appreciation for what deserves to be cherished and clear-eyed honesty about what needs to be changed, the inevitably imperfect places and institutions and people that matter so deeply to our lives.

NOTE: The University is making the book On Juneteenth available free of charge to faculty and staff who request it before June 18.  Please use this link to request a copy.