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 steady introduction and spread 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: Extremism can be a more effective tool for producing a just world than moderation or compromise. The uncompromising firebrands for slavery abolition, like John Brown and Wendell Phillips, were widely castigated as impractical utopians at best and dangerously insane fanatics at worst. Alongside the persistent refusal of slaves to submit quietly to their enslavement, radical abolitionists’ firm refusal to compromise on their principles or accept “reasonable” electoral compromise with slavers played a key role in escalating the conflict over chattel slavery to the point where it could conceivably be dismantled. It was only after the smashing of the slaver regimes that the need for them to be uncompromisingly smashed could be seen as obvious or common sense. The political common sense of today is built on the dreams of dead radicals and past utopias.
The abolitionists of today who demand an end to prisons and policing are thought of as similarly unreasonable or extremist. Yet, it is by making demands that go beyond what is considered acceptable to the world as it currently is that new worlds and new boundaries of what counts as reasonable can come into being. Even when extremists don’t succeed, stridently advocating and organizing around ideas that are beyond the pale can shift what counts as a permissible reform. Remember that it is largely because of their fear of Malcolm X and the nascent, more militant Black power and Black nationalist movements that the white U.S. leadership of the 1960s eventually considered Martin Luther King, Jr. to be a comparatively safer figure to bargain with on civil rights legislation.
There are times when compromise is important in order to institutionalize political demands, but at other times compromise can be detrimental to the process of organizing people to push for comprehensive systemic change. Regardless of what a more strategically necessary at a given moment, it isn’t compromise in itself that brings about substantive or even incremental transformation.
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 naive. They can be used as standards of values and expectations that allow us, by contrast with the current world, to critically assess and understand the world as it actually is. Utopias are well-developed hopes and weaponized dreams, and they can be powerful. But, what is often forgotten about them is that they can be achieved. As underwhelming as the state of the world is today, it should be understood as the outcome of the victory of many people’s utopias, and not just the utopias of villains.
We should expect and demand utopia, not because we can’t achieve it, but precisely because we can, and will then need to demand more and continue struggling for more once those victories have been secured. Demanding a static utopia alone runs the risk of 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 today 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 even fueled by their commitments to white supremacy. Opposition is not enough. Abolitionist politics today requires not just negative opposition, such as being against incarceration or policing, but also requires what Angela Davis describes as the creation of positive social, economic, political, cultural, and institutional conditions that would make these violent institutions obsolete. Achieving these abolitionist conditions requires a utopian vision in order to guide people’s struggles and practically achieve their goals.
The original 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, and from which we can and will find inspiration to paint the utopias of the future.