Pulitzer-winner Gordon-Reed (
The Hemingses of Monticello) interweaves history, politics, and memoir in these immersive and well-informed essays reflecting on the history of Juneteenth. She places the story of June 19, 1865, the day (two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation) when African Americans in Galveston, Tex., learned they were free, in the context of the bargain struck between settler Stephen F. Austin and the Mexican government in the 1820s to allow chattel slavery in what became east Texas, and notes that after winning independence from Mexico in 1836, Texans pushed for annexation into the U.S. in order to protect themselves from the rising tide of abolitionism. Gordon-Reed also describes the “oddity of being on display” as the first student to integrate schools in her hometown of Conroe, sketches the history of Indigenous peoples in the region, and discusses the story behind the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” which was based on a (likely false) legend that Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna lost the Battle of San Jacinto because he was “distracted” by a “beautiful woman of color” spying for the Texas revolutionaries. Despite the thorny racial history, Gordon-Reed expresses a deep fondness for her native state, writing that “love does not require taking an uncritical stance toward the object of one’s affections.” This brisk history lesson entertains and enlightens. (May)
"Gordon-Reed offers a book that is both profound and personal in its exploration of the ways history shapes our lives and becomes distorted and reinvigorated over time."
"The Best Books of 2021 So Far" TIME
The Education of Henry Adams is the second most influential memoir in American letters, after Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. Annette Gordon-Reed’s insightful, often touching reflection on the Black experience in Texas, starting with her own, lands between these two.... Gordon-Reed has earned acclaim as one of the most important American historians of our time."
"Pulitzer Prize winner Annette Gordon-Reed renders a perfectly quilted work of history seen through the eyes of an African American family in Texas."
Christian Science Monitor
"[Gordon-Reed's] academic training tempers that lifelong sense of Texas exceptionalism as she details with clear-eyed detachment yet enduring affection the Lone Star State’s outsized impact on the nation.... The beauty of history, Gordon-Reed argues, of knowing what didn’t happen as well as what did, is that it reminds us of what is yet possible.... This consummate historian suggests that we neither remember nor forget the Alamo but instead remember the people whose “boundless dreams [of freedom] took flight” before we were born."
Texas Monthly - Angela Ards
"It is more than a small pleasure to see that Black historians who have been engaged in deep archival research for decades continue to produce field-changing work that ought to be the center of any national debate about how Americans reckon with our racial past. In
On Juneteenth, Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed brilliantly meditates on the origin stories that we tell ourselves in an effort to avoid the nuances of history. Gordon-Reed is a legend in her field…. Among the most significant historians in the country, a remarkable analyst of the American archive whose gift for storytelling is matched only by her prolific range…. On Juneteenth—part memoir, part local history, part contemplative essay on the meaning of Texas as American myth—reveals a historian whose scholarship will never be limited... she is more broadly concerned with the very nature of history itself…. Offer[ing] us a declaration of history as nuance. On Juneteenth is a text that has the power to alter its field, with a vigorous assertion of the importance of historical context in our current political moment."
The New Republic - Kerri Greenidge
"[Gordon-Reed] offers a thoughtful and affectionate meditation on the state in which, despite its dualities, she still feels most at home. Where others might see a simple picture of unreconstructed racism, Gordon-Reed sees — and dissects — complexities that largely defy stereotypes. In so doing, she makes
On Juneteenth an important part of the discussion about who and what we are as 21st-century Americans.... Gordon-Reed brings her substantial intellect to this intimate exploration of her home state."
Washington Independent Review of Books - Eugene L. Meyer
"The slim 140-page volume is almost like a pocket constitution, and I could see it having a life in classrooms as well as in the hands of lay readers of history.... A compelling counter-narrative to familiar stories of [Texas]’s origins."
Texas Observer - Irene Vázquez
"As Juneteenth morphs from a primarily Texan celebration of African American freedom to a proposed national holiday, Gordon-Reed urges Texans and all Americans to reflect critically on this tangled history. A remarkable meditation on the history and folk mythology of Texas from an African American perspective."
"Gordon-Reed is the textbook definition of public intellectual; and yet she gets personal in this slender, evocative memoir, blending gorgeous details from her small-town Texas girlhood with the unofficial celebration of slavery’s demise and the broader canvas of race in America."
"This beautifully written memoir makes the case that the history of Black Texas is central to the history of the United States. Gordon-Reed’s writing will move all readers of U.S. history."
"The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian interweaves her personal, trailblazing history with that of her home state to pierce many of the false narratives we learned as children about the country’s treatment of African Americans.... Gordon-Reed offers a timely history lesson. She does so with beautiful prose, breathtaking stories and painful memories.... Gordon-Reed’s literary gift is the ability to research and write about subjects with broadly accepted stories in a convincing way that allows readers to consider other perspectives."
Washington Post - Daina Ramey Berry
"In a series of short, moving essays, [Gordon-Reed] explores “the long road” to June 19, 1865, when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger announced the end of legalized slavery in Texas, the state where Gordon-Reed was born and raised.... No matter what she’s looking at, Gordon-Reed pries open this space between the abstract and particular.... One of the things that makes this slender book stand out is Gordon-Reed’s ability to combine clarity with subtlety, elegantly carving a path between competing positions, instead of doing as too many of us do in this age of hepped-up social-media provocations by simply reacting to them. In
On Juneteenth she leads by example, revisiting her own experiences, questioning her own assumptions — and showing that historical understanding is a process, not an end point."
New York Times - Jennifer Szalai
"Gordon-Reed's scholarship is about challenging established notions. And just as she did with the prevailing narrative around Jefferson — as a founding father who could never have fathered children with a Black woman — so she does with the state that gave the nation Juneteenth.... Gordon-Reed's book is a historian's interrogation of her home state. But like Juneteenth, it speaks to the rest of the nation."
Minneapolis Star-Tribune - Rosalind Bentley
The Harvard historian and Texas native demonstrates what the holiday means to her and to the rest of the nation.
Initially celebrated primarily by Black Texans, Juneteenth refers to June 19, 1865, when a Union general arrived in Galveston to proclaim the end of slavery with the defeat of the Confederacy. If only history were that simple. In her latest, Gordon-Reed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and numerous other honors, describes how Whites raged and committed violence against celebratory Blacks as racism in Texas and across the country continued to spread through segregation, Jim Crow laws, and separate-but-equal rationalizations. As Gordon-Reed amply shows in this smooth combination of memoir, essay, and history, such racism is by no means a thing of the past, even as Juneteenth has come to be celebrated by all of Texas and throughout the U.S. The Galveston announcement, notes the author, came well after the Emancipation Proclamation but before the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Though Gordon-Reed writes fondly of her native state, especially the strong familial ties and sense of community, she acknowledges her challenges as a woman of color in a state where “the image of Texas has a gender and a race:
“Texas is a White man.” The author astutely explores “what that means for everyone who lives in Texas and is not a White man.” With all of its diversity and geographic expanse, Texas also has a singular history—as part of Mexico, as its own republic from 1836 to 1846, and as a place that “has connections to people of African descent that go back centuries.” All of this provides context for the uniqueness of this historical moment, which Gordon-Reed explores with her characteristic rigor and insight.
A concise personal and scholarly history that avoids academic jargon as it illuminates emotional truths.