In 1852, Frederick Douglass asked us to define what freedom is to a Black American.
As we revisit his call to action, topics such as critical race theory dominate discussions about how history should be told. But it’s only by exploring the past that we can make sense of the present. And through the UC Berkeley Library, we can do just that.
To observe Juneteenth, commemorating the abolishment of slavery in the United States, we are highlighting the breadth of resources available in the Library’s collections. Here, five Berkeley experts recommend titles that will help us reflect on the importance of this day.
‘We still struggle over our past as we struggle to imagine our future.’
— john a. powell, professor and director of Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute
As Juneteenth provides a reason to celebrate emancipation, it also provides a time for us to think deeply about what it means to be an American, explained john a. powell, professor and director of Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute. “The question of freedom is complicated,” powell said. “America is a country that claims to be founded in ‘equality’ but struggles to understand why Black history has formed American history.” Books that examine America’s racial identity such as Slavery by Another Name (2008) by Douglas Blackmon or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010) are foundational readings that powell would recommend to students as part of the narrative. He also included a title published last year: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, which describes how freedom has historically been misinterpreted, leading to a caste system in the United States. This book invites people to rethink the construct of emancipation, defined by America, and places a critical light on the forces that keep Americans divided by racial inequalities.
‘Though it’s not well-recognized, (The Bancroft Library) has probably the best collection of rare books, serials, and manuscripts related to African American history and culture in the West.’
— David Faulds, curator of rare books and literary manuscripts
In A Red Record, civil rights journalist Ida B. Wells uncovered the psychological intentions of lynchings as a way to suppress and control African American communities. Wells’ investigative research inspired studies that focused on addressing the impact on mental health in the Black community and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. A rare copy of the 1895 pamphlet is one of the treasures at The Bancroft Library, a donation from Leon Litwack, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and past chair of Berkeley’s Department of History. Along with A Red Record, David Faulds, Bancroft’s curator of rare books and literary manuscripts, introduced Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The work, originally released in 1773, is the first published book of poetry by an African American author. Faulds also highlighted the rare portrait of Wheatley on the inside title page of her manuscript, noting it’s the only known work by the enslaved African American artist Scipio Moorhead. These unique materials are among the 3,000-plus printed items at Bancroft that contain Black history, including works by previously enslaved authors, Faulds said.
‘We need to celebrate the possibilities that transcend slavery.’
— Ula Taylor, professor and chair of African American studies
Framing the timeline leading up to end of slavery, Ula Taylor, professor and chair of African American studies, described why she would ask her students to consider how crucial communication was to emancipation and the Juneteenth story. She explained that when discussing systems of oppression, “it can be hard for students to understand this type of information, because they have no context; the slave population was mostly illiterate, and there isn’t much written about the lived history from a firsthand point of view.” Historians found that as time passed, fewer opportunities were available to hear firsthand from former slaves before the end of their lives. In appreciation of the freedom narrative, Tera W. Hunter’s To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War brought together a real-life portrayal of emancipated Black women who continued their servitude as household laborers while also resisting social barriers designed to exploit them. Published in 1997, Hunter’s interviews reveal a powerful story about the people whose lives were altered through this experience.
‘Black bookstores are not that common, and the ones that do exist are fewer in number, which makes sharing information and having a space to access knowledge about Blackness more challenging to obtain.’
— Nathaniel Moore, archivist
The Ethnic Studies Library’s unique collection of resources includes the Poetry for the People program archives, African American poetry, and a variety of archival posters featuring Black life and culture. While looking closely at these materials, Nathaniel Moore, an archivist from the Ethnic Studies Library, pointed out the similarities between poet-activist June Jordan’s work, which is best known within literary social justice and LGBTQ communities, with less well-known selections from the library’s collections. To give us an idea, Moore unveiled a distinctive Afrocentric poster from Marcus Books, a historic independent Black bookstore, to broach the idea of resilience in the Black community. He explained that the loss of Black cultural resources can affect the depth of knowledge production, limiting opportunities to engage in studies about Black history and cultural identity. In commemoration of Emancipation Day, Moore recognized that access to information sets the stage for the Library archives to act as a platform for the “Black community to engage in thoughtful conversations that produce intellectual work for the benefit of our society.”
‘The idea of freedom is multifaceted and sobering — you don’t realize the complexities of emancipation until you begin to question how it works in our current time and space, both then and now.’
— Gisèle Tanasse, Berkeley’s film and media services librarian
Gisèle Tanasse, Berkeley’s film and media services librarian, noted that a number of documentaries are available to help researchers form their own understanding of emancipation and its success or failures across American history. Library users can access films on topics that range from education and prison reform to voter suppression and generational wealth through Docuseek, the academic streaming resource. Recognizing that this topic can draw out conflicting opinions, Tanasse offered the opportunity for us to consider why, more than a century and a half after emancipation, discussion of America’s oppression and inequalities remain. If we’re still having conversations about how to achieve liberation for all Americans, Tanasse asked, “then have we fully realized the purpose of emancipation?” One of Tanasse’s picks, a stirring documentary from 2018, Power to Heal: Medicare and the Civil Rights Revolution, engages us in the historic — and familiar — struggle for equitable and sustainable access to health care in America. This film helps us remember to celebrate Juneteenth as a beginning — but not as an end — to the conversation.
Illustration by A. Hamilton