Once, people dreamed of the end of slavery. Such dreams were needed, because utopias don’t birth themselves, and a world without chains was utopian before it was imagined to be inevitable. In the US, which holds 25% of the world’s prisoners, it still is.
We mark the culmination of that past utopia with the commemoration of Juneteenth, honoring when chattel slavery was finally ended in all former Confederate states. The Union Major General Gordon Granger landed in Texas, the last slaver state bastion, on June 19, 1865 with enough military power to finally enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. The Republic of Texas was already established in large part as a militant pro-slavery revolt by white settlers against the Mexican empire and it’s ban on slavery, but as the luck of the Confederacy dwindled during the war, slavers had further migrated to Texas. Fully a quarter of whites held slaves by the time Granger landed, and 30% of the Texas population were slaves.
Slavery would not die out on it’s own. It took centuries of slave resistance, abolitionist organizing, and a bloody civil war and military occupation of the South for chattel slavery and the slaver class to finally be dismantled. The re-creation of informal slavery through the Black Codes and convict leasing, debt bondage, and exploitative sharecropping conditions immediately after the Civil War, as well as the introduction of Jim Crow laws after the end of Reconstruction led to the retrenchment of white supremacy. Yet, Juneteenth is an important holiday commemorating a rare moment of victory, however incomplete, in the dismantling of one of the systems of racial dominance and inequality that has defined the character of the United States and citizenship within it since its creation.
Utopias are won with hope and struggle, and their commemorations are time machines for drawing out their connection to the present and lessons for the future. As a memorial for the victory of a past utopia of abolition, Juneteenth can help us think about today’s struggles for abolition and the unfinished project of dismantling white supremacy. It can also, more immediately, help fuel the dreams needed to carry these utopias to fruition. We could take away many lessons, but here are three that I think are particularly important:
Lesson One: Popular notions of reasonableness are symptoms of who is winning, and so fanaticism can be a more effective tool for producing a just world than moderation or compromise. The uncompromising firebrands for slavery abolition, the John Browns and Wendell Phillips, were widely castigated as impractical dreamers at best and insane fanatics at worst. It was only with that strident commitment to principle and refusal to compromise that conflict was escalated to the point where chattel slavery could be dismantled. It was only after the smashing of the slaver regimes that the need for them to be uncompromisingly smashed could become common sense. The abolitionists of today, demanding an end to prisons and policing, are thought of as similarly unreasonable. It is also only through such unreasonableness that new worlds and new boundaries of what counts as reasonable can come into being.
Lesson Two: We must demand and expect more than utopia. This may seem absurd. Isn’t it unreasonable enough to demand utopia? Utopias, though, don’t require us to be idiots. Utopias are well-developed hopes and weaponized dreams, and they are powerful. But, the remarkable thing is that they can be achieved. As underwhelming as the state of the world is today, it should be understood as the victory of many people’s utopias, and not just the utopias of villains. We should expect and demand a utopia, not because we can’t achieve it, but precisely because we can and will need to demand more and continue struggling for more once those victories have been secured. Demanding utopia alone runs the risk if disillusionment, but being infinitely demanding of endlessly renewed utopian dreams both orients our struggles and protects us against disappointment at not achieving a static notion of a “perfect” world
Lesson Three: Abolitionism must be both a negative demand and a positive vision for what alternative futures are possible. Many white abolitionists were perfectly content to retire from active political life after the end of chattel slavery, even with the continuation and emergence of new forms of white supremacy and Black unfreedom. For some, like the early white settlers of Oregon, their abolitionism was fueled by their commitments to white supremacy. Abolitionist politics today requires not just negative opposition, such as being against incarceration, but what Angela Davis described as the creation of positive social, economic, political, cultural, and institutional conditions that would make prisons obsolete. Juneteenth marked the utopian achievement of a negative abolition, but also the beginning of a long struggle for the achievement of a new, positive vision wherein oppression could be rendered obsolete.
We must remember our past utopias, then. Not just to learn from them, mind you, but also to appreciate that they aren’t even truly past. They are ready-at-hand palettes bequeathed by the struggles of those who fought for better worlds before us, from which we can and will paint the new utopias to come into reality.