Don’t Let the Lessons of Juneteenth Fade

by | June 26, 2023

As a dual national who grew up between both Germany and the US, I (like most white Americans) was oblivious of Juneteenth, because this story (along with so many others) was kept from us in school.  I did, however, grow up with a deep understanding of the complexity of German history, and was trained in German high school to see the past as an honest friend who reminds you daily of your moral compass. In that training, we learned about Germany’s responsibility for two world wars and the Holocaust.  We were inoculated with a deep distrust of authoritarianism and propaganda, as well as activated in an ardent commitment to fight for peace. Our mission was ‘never again’.

A key part of that civic education was proper commemoration of the 8th of May—the day in 1945 when Germany signed a document declaring its unconditional surrender.  In school, guided by our teacher whose father had fought in and died in World War II, we read the deeply moving and historic speech that Richard von Weizsaecker, former President of Germany, gave on May 8, 1985, the 40th anniversary of the end of the war. In it, he fully acknowledged Germany’s responsibility for the atrocities committed under the Nazi regime, and exhorted Germans to always face the truth and embrace the lessons of the past.  With many veterans of the war still alive, and thousands of families awkwardly squirming in narrative dysfunctionalities, he challenged all Germans to engage in radical remembrance.  “Remembering”, he wrote, “means recalling an occurrence honestly and without distortion, so that it becomes a part of our very beings. This places high demands on our truthfulness.”  Then, and only then, he assured us, can we move towards a better future. 

That speech is long, but it is worth a read. It reminds of the of the capacity for the important role leaders can play in shaping a national narrative. But the zinger of the speech, the line that struck a chord throughout the nation and reverberated in my teenage heart, was “Der 8. Mai ist ein Tag der Befreiung.”–“The 8th of May is a day of liberation”.  By that von Weizsaecker meant not just the liberation of prisoners from concentration camps, but rather Germany’s collective liberation from the tyranny of an aberration of history.  The 8th of May, he said, was not a day of defeat, but a day of beginning, “an end bearing seeds of hope for a better future.” And there it was: truthful remembrance and the commitment to justice go hand in hand.  

Ah, how much we Americans could learn from the profound notion of confronting the complexity of truth as a national story that simultaneously propels renewal in the ideals of nation…

Today, one side of the political spectrum in the United States doesn’t want to challenge the past because it might make us feel bad. The other side struggles to embrace any story of national unity until we have done deep enough work to acknowledge the sins of our past. Yet, in this tension is a clear vision of a better future, one based on an honest reckoning of our past and who we are as a country. 

My first memory of fully feeling the beauty of this tension was in Russia in 1995, when I witnessed the spectacle of the tanks, troops and fighter planes making Moscow tremble for the 50th anniversary of Victory Day.  The leaders of the US, France, Britain and Russia stood alongside 45 other world leaders and the then German chancellor, watching together as all surviving veterans marched past the dais.  It was simultaneously a joyous celebration of the victory over Nazism and, having just brokered a peaceful reunification of Germany five years earlier, of the promise of renewed commitment to freedom and democracy.  

With fluency and familiarity in Russian and with Russia, I was enjoying the fact that all parts of me–German, American and Russian–could be celebrating this day together.  While my hopes in Russian democracy have since been shattered, at the time I felt the full promise of the day of victory as a moment of collective remembrance, one of healing and hope.

It wasn’t until 2016, when I went on a quest looking for the root causes of the problems of US democracy, that I realized how little America had confronted its past. As a historian and a social entrepreneur with a life-long commitment to strengthening democracy, I was shocked to realize how much US history I hadn’t learned in school.  I am ashamed to say it took me so long, but when I finally dug into the horrific history of our American experience of suffering and exclusion, I wondered whether a fundamental part of our nation’s problems stemmed from the fact that we never had a day that collectively forced us to confront our past and renew our pledge to collaboratively craft a better future. 

Juneteenth could become that day.  On that day, the news of emancipation reached the last remaining enslaved individuals in Galveston, Texas, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. It is a milestone in the long and arduous journey of African Americans to be fully free and equal–a journey that is not even close to its destination.  Like May 8, it marks the formal end of a system of oppression that we as Americans didn’t invent, but which we systematized and industrialized on a scale unknown in history. Like May 8, it is a day of liberation from the tyranny of a harrowing aberration of history.

Unlike May 8, Juneteenth did not see America utterly defeated on the battlefield with the need for an entirely fresh start.  In 1865 most Americans did not have to rebuild their cities and villages brick by brick, weaving a commitment to a better future into every house and every street as they silently processed their complicity in a historic and globally broadcast apocalypse. 

Nonetheless, von Weizsaecker’s call rings true for Americans today.  We may not have lost a world war, but many of our communities are suffering horribly from gun violence, drug abuse and general discord.  From our emotional rubble, we can see Juneteenth as an invitation to grapple with the painful truths of history, acknowledging the enduring consequences of slavery, segregation, and racial injustice. It is an invitation to acknowledge that the process of healing requires honest reflection, education, and meaningful efforts to dismantle systemic barriers that perpetuate inequality.

Most importantly, both May 8th and Juneteenth are reminders that the struggle for justice is a process. The liberation from the atrocities of Nazism did not automatically erase the deep scars and divisions in Germany, just as the emancipation of enslaved African Americans did not instantly erase the systemic racism that persists today. We must recognize that the work of justice and equity is ongoing, and it requires collective action and an unwavering commitment to upholding the principles of freedom and equality.

I close with von Weizsaecker’s words: “What is asked of young people today is this: do not let yourselves be forced into enmity and hatred of other people, of Russians or Americans, Jews or Turks, of alternatives or conservatives, blacks or whites. Learn to live together, not in opposition to each other. As democratically elected politicians, we, too, should heed this time and again and set a good example.

Let us honor freedom.
Let us work for peace.
Let us respect the rule of law.
Let us be true to our own conception of justice.
On this 8th of May, let us face up–as well as we can–to the truth.”

About the Author

Fernande Raine is a social entrepreneur and founder of The History Co:Lab. The History Co:Lab is a systems-change initiative to strengthen history education for a better democracy by crafting community partnerships for engaging and inspired learning and by amplifying youth voice. She has a PhD in history, started her career at McKinsey and Co. and spent 15 years with Ashoka launching programs and growing the institution around the globe.

Related Posts

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This