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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Juneteenth

Bogalusa Daily News
I clearly remember the day I invited one of my dearest friends, an African American man, to come celebrate July 4th with my family. "We'll go to the parade and then come home and feast and sing and dance," I said, with my usual enthusiasm.

He grew very quiet and somber. He was obviously trying to be polite but I instantly knew it was simply more than that he had another invitation or just didn't want to attend and was trying to find a polite way to decline.

"What are you celebrating?" he asked.

"July 4th!" I said, as a quizzical statement of fact. "You know: Freedom! Independence! Liberty and Justice for All!"

"Really?" he said. "Liberty and Justice. For all? Or, for some?"

His words - and the reality behind them - hit me so hard I suddenly felt nauseous and dizzy.

Right. How very White of me!

It was yet another time when I realized that racism is so much a part of my life - my White Privilege is so blinding - that I didn't even see the possibility that a national holiday like July 4th would be a reminder of how we still have not lived into the ideals set forth by our founders.

Indeed, I'm quite certain our "Founding Fathers" didn't understand the full implication the idea that "all men (sic) are created equal" and are "endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights".

Juneteenth - Emancipation Day
The room got very quiet and I tried not to let him see that my eyes were filling with tears.

"Look," he said, softly, kindly, "I don't want to ruin your celebration but the truth is that 'my people' still don't have what the constitution guarantees. Not really. Just because the law changed - and, I'm not saying that I'm not grateful for that - it doesn't change people's hearts and minds."

I took a deep breath. "I'm so sorry," I said. "I....I...I guess .... I don't know....didn't know....didn't realize..... I'm so sorry," I stammered.

Now he was feeling bad because I was feeling bad. I hate the awkwardness of moments like this between friends. It's part of what makes us friends - that we can have awkward moments because we love one another enough to tell the truth - but that doesn't make it any less awkward.

"So, let's think about this," he said, running to his head and away from his heart. I was willing to follow him there. It's a defense mechanism I engage with some regularity.

"July 4, 1776. That's when this country signed the Declaration of Independence. But, the Emancipation Proclamation didn't come until when?"

"Ummm... after the Civil War? Late 1800's?," I guessed

"January 1, 1863," he said.

"So," I asked clumsily, stupidly, the way a three-year old asks questions when s/he doesn't see - can't see - the larger picture, "is January 1st sort of your July 4th?" 

"Actually, no," he said. "January 1st is New Year's Day. Remember?" he teased.  I blushed.

"The truth is that many of the slaves, especially in the south, wouldn't hear about their freedom for another two and a half years. It wasn't until somewhere between June 17-19 when Union soldiers sailed into Galveston, TX and announced the end of the Civil War and read the Emancipation Proclamation that people who were slaves knew they were free."

It was the first time I learned about the celebration known as 'Juneteenth'.

Freedom Day
My awkwardness knowing no limits in these situations, I asked, hopefully, perhaps with just a little too much cheeriness in my tone, "So, is THAT your July 4th?"

He smiled sadly and looked away for a few moments, trying to gather his thoughts.  God, I honestly don't know why this man is still my friend!

"Do you know when the Civil Rights Act passed?" he asked.

"Ummm... I know that it was sometime in the sixties, right? '62? '63?"

 "July 2, 1964," he said, smiling as he added, "And no, that's not our 'Independence Day'. Have any idea why?"

I may be stupid but I'm not dumb. I tried to smile as I said, "Because, real independence, real 'liberty and justice' have not yet come for people of color, even after 1776, or 1863, or 1865 or 1964."

"That's right," he said.

"I understand," I said, quickly adding, "Well, I don't. Not completely. How could I?"

"That's right," he said.

We both grew very quiet. It was the kind of silence that friends often have between them. It's not an empty silence. Rather, it is rich and full, respectful and painfully honest. It's the silence that allows each friend the space to be alone with their thoughts, taking in more fully what the other has said. It's a tension that both tests and confirms your friendship.

"Look," he said, finally, "I'd love to come to your party. But, let's be real clear: I'm coming for your potato salad. You make a mean potato salad."

We laughed, then - that awkward kind of laugh that marks the end of one difficult conversation and signals that you can both move on now, having grown a bit in your relationship."

"Okay," I laughed. "No parade, but potato salad. Got it."

We both laughed again - it was so good to laugh again, and then he was silent for awhile before he said, "I can observe all kinds of holidays, but I can't yet celebrate. You know?"

Juneteenth Remembrance
"I think I do, actually," I said. "Truth be told, I don't think I can celebrate, either. Not the way I once did. It's hard to celebrate after your eyes have been opened. But," I added, "I think, from now on, I'll be observing Juneteenth. It's an important reminder of the work that still needs to be done."

"It reminds me," I continued, "of the wisdom in the saying that no one is free unless all are free."

He smiled. "I look forward to the day when you and I can really celebrate freedom and 'liberty and justice for all'."

"Me, too," I said. "Me, too."

"Until then, there's always the potato salad," he laughed

"Absolutely," I said. "If nothing else, we'll celebrate potato salad."

Many miles now separate us. We won't be gathering to observe July 4th together this year. But, when I do, I won't forget Juneteenth and the lessons learned about freedom and justice.

But, tonight, I think I'll make some potato salad and celebrate the way some of our friends love us enough to liberate us from our own blindness - even years after we've been set 'free'.

21 comments:

Unknown said...

Thanks! Makes my rejection of Thanksgiving reasonable.

Turnip Ghost said...

So glad to hear this from a Portuguese, the nation that virtually started the African slave trade to the Western Hemisphere and continued slavery in Brazil until 1888, a nation that imported more kidnapped Africans than the rest of the Western Hemisphere put together.

RENZ said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. Actually was thinking about Juneteenth the other day, trying to remember the when and why of it. Of course, I got distracted and would have missed it but for your lovely post. Only problem, now I have a wicked craving for potato salad.

RENZ said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Unknown - Please sign your name next time. Thanks.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Turnip Ghost - First of all, I'm not "a Portuguese". I'm a Portuguese woman who happens to be very proud of her heritage but very disgusted and distressed by the heavy Portuguese involvement in the Slave Trade. Probably just as disgusted and distressed as people of Dutch, English, and French heritage.

However, as a Christian, I believe in redemption - not of my ancestors (I am not responsible for what they did) but of myself. I'm working on my own racism. Every day. How about you? Or, do you just enjoy taking cheap shots?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, Renz - I do make a mean potato salad.

RENZ said...

Ok to delete my duplicate, darn smart phone. Same guy attempted a nasty gram at my blog.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Renz - Done. You mean I have you to thank for the rude visit of Turnip Ghost? Thanks, bud. I guess I won't be publishing too many more of his (?) posts. Let me rephrase that: None.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth,
I found this post thought provoking. The gentlemen that you were talking to opened your eyes regarding his perception of his forefathers' repression.
In 2008, I had my eyes opened regarding the lack of freedom for women (white/black/Indian, etc.) The failure of Hillary Clinton to clench the Democratic nomination seemed to show me that sexism is still in place and more acceptable than racisim. I know this was not the point of your post. Your post just reminded me that as women we thought we were "free" but how "free" have we been?
Irrespective of this thought, I still celebrate July 4 because I realize that the good old USA still offers more freedom and more opportunities than most other nations.Thanks for the reflection.
Maria

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Maria - I agree. Sexism is as alive and well as racism. I can't fully "celebrate" any holiday that celebrates freedom because we're not all free. I observe the day and reflect on it.

Jeffrey said...

Very nice essay – so personal and moving!

Thank heavens for the brave words and especially, actions by the Republicans and people of faith to fight slavery and promote civil rights for all Americans! And guess what – these were older white men acting courageously!

Despite the efforts of the Democrats, liberals and leftists to rewrite history (words), Northern and Southern Democrats fought hard against Emancipation and Civil Rights legislation (actions).

Is there still racism in the US? You bet, but it is now a minority view and the bigots on both the far right and far left are getting lonelier and lonelier. If you really want to see and feel the nastiest side of racism and bigotry today, all you need to do is travel outside the US and Europe.

Oh, Happy Independence Day to all Americans, including African Americans!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Jeffrey - That Republican, Abe Lincoln, must be rolling over in his grave at what his party has become. This is when I believed in ghosts being able to affect change on "this side of the veil". I do believe Ole Abe would be cracking some heads together - especially when the so-called "moderate" Republicans don't hold accountable the racism of the so-called Radical Right.

We live in sure and certain hope.

Anonymous said...

Last time I checked, Lyndon B. Johnson, from the great state of Texas, was a southern democrat and he got the civil rights law passed after JFK died. Oh yes, he was a white male. I guess white male democrat believe in equality too.

MarkBrunson said...

The names are the same, but any basic poli-sci course will tell you, the actual policies have completely reversed - Abe Lincoln would not be a Republican now, and the South is no longer represented as Democrat, but Republican, where it maintains the same prejudicial, self-serving hypocrisy that passes as conservative now. Again, the errant nonsense of saying that it was all privileged white men who made the change - of course it was, because they were the only ones allowed to. That is not to be applauded - that they finally, FINALLY did what was right after resisting it until the revolution-point.

MarkBrunson said...

Elizabeth,

Turnip Ghost is simply Brad, aka NixonisLord, aka, aka, aka. . .

Cheap shots is all he has, and we should pity him for that.

Of course, that being said, I vote he should next choose a screen-name like "SummersEve" or "Massengill."

Jeffrey Wells, RN said...

It is hard to discern as the liberal media, academics and Democrat politicians have tried to revise history, but both parties have been hijacked by entitlement and the allure of power elitism.

I suspect that Honest Abe would be disgusted by the actions of both parties, horrified by the unrepentant sleaze of Weiner, Spitzer, Clinton, Rangel, Edwards, Waters, Frank, Kennedys, etc.

Oh, as a congressman, LBJ opposed civil rights legislation, even actively fighting against anti-lynching legislation. JFK had a 1960 fundraiser with the White Citizen’s Council in Alabama that only Jackie Robinson had the bravery to speak out against. Today, young black male unemployment is over 40%. The War on Poverty, the Stimulus, etc have not worked.

The best way to self-sufficiency, freedom and opportunity? Laissez-faire capitalism with some regulation, education and representative democracy!

Jeffrey Wells, RN said...

Oh forgot to say - again - a very well written and moving essay!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Jeffrey.

JCF said...

The best way to self-sufficiency, freedom and opportunity? Laissez-faire capitalism with some regulation, education and representative democracy!

Let Them Eat Cake!

{Sigh}

MarkBrunson said...

Laissez faire capitalism?

Oh, I didn't realize you aren't a Christian.

No point talking about this, then.