Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States in October of 1862, and it became effective on January 1, 1863. To say the effects were not immediate is an understatement, particularly in what would become the former Confederacy. It took Union troops and readings of the Proclamation, as they advanced, to spread the word alone; the effects of emancipation would take much longer. On June 19, 1865, General Granger read “General Order Number Three” to the people of Galveston, Texas, a day commemorated in most United States today as Juneteenth.
Freedom takes more than an executive order, and “freedom isn’t free.” The new freedmen pooled their resources and bought lands on which to celebrate their freedom. But in their daily lives, many continued to work quietly for their former owners, under the same conditions as in slavery. It would take another hundred years of struggle before the working definition of freedom changed again as dramatically for black men and women in this country.
But the struggle for freedom never ends: it only changes its form. We fight for an end to the prison-industrial complex. Refugees of war, economics, and politics continue to seek safe harbor on our shores. We fight internal wars against people in drug trade, who work without documentation, who live on the streets. The governing parties are increasingly polarized, and the richest one percent continue to break away from the rest of us, whose real earnings are stagnant. Most of our popular culture is manufactured; few of us are more than consumers, farther than one paycheck from desperation.
It used to be so clear, how to be free. Today, prison and poverty replace legal slavery, and real slavery—of sex workers, of child laborers, of undocumented workers, of drug addicts—is just out of view of most citizens. Working class people no longer go to debtors prison: they just work two, three, or more jobs. Our freedom means we are unfettered from the ties that used to hold us: to family, to the land, to an employer, to our country. Where we used to live in extended families, now the most common household is headed by a single parent. We move to other cities and countries for work: something that would historically happen in hard times, when there wasn’t enough work on the farm, or when nature or war devastated the land. Now the blight is strip malls, monocultures, and environmental pollution. Every employable member of the household is sent out to work, an effort previously reserved for wartime. We’re free from the old, the young, and the disabled, sending each to a different institution. When we become old ourselves, we seldom live with our children’s families, but go to institutions to decline and die.
When life is this hard, what does it mean to be free? This Juneteenth and Independence Day, The Good Life on The Good Men Project will be running posts on the subject of the free man in the twenty-first century. Email pitches and completed submissions to Justin Cascio, firstname.lastname@example.org by Saturday, June 23 for consideration. Questions? Just want to talk? Email Justin.
—Office worker image from Shutterstock