Saturday, June 19, 2021

Touched liberation? The importance of celebrating Juneteenth!


No one who has ever touched liberation could possibly want anything other than liberation for everyone.


We should talk about Juneteenth while we still can.


I say this only half in jest. As reactionary forces advocate restricting what schools can teach about the history of racism in America, one can imagine they may seek to extinguish all honest conversation about such a day as this.


After all, to commemorate Juneteenth—June 19, 1865, the day enslaved persons in Texas first learned they were free, two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation—requires us to know first about the system of enslavement whose ending it celebrates. That means confronting the truth that this nation’s promises of liberty were never intended for everyone. “All lives” had not mattered for a long time because Black lives were considered outside the circle of “all.” 


Too often, this is still the case. So although we celebrate literal emancipation on Juneteenth, a larger freedom from economic inequality and police brutality, among other things, still awaits the descendants of those released from bondage six generations ago.


But the incompleteness of the struggle does not diminish the importance of partial victories. We should celebrate these, not to partake in a premature victory lap or use “progress” as a way to paper over ongoing injustices, but to pay tribute to those who set us on the path to making the nation’s reality comport with its rhetoric. Juneteenth could never have happened without the brave rebellions of the enslaved, the moral force of the abolitionist movement, and the Black troops whose infusion into the ranks of the Union army helped turn the tide of the Civil War.


Although the importance of celebrating Juneteenth might be evident to Black folks, it should be every bit as important to those of us who are White because the liberation of Black people is the only hope for our own. The literal chains that bound Black bodies always, metaphorically, bound us as well: to a mindset of human inequality, the perpetuation of unspeakable horror, and the numbing of one’s conscience necessary to make that horror acceptable. 


Scientists are now beginning to speak of the intergenerational transmission of trauma among oppressed peoples, as well they should. But I also wonder about the intergenerational transmission of moral anesthesia among those who descend from oppressors. Surely that too can be inherited as a legacy, much as enslaved bodies themselves once were. 


Because reading the 1844 will of my four-times great-grandfather, Samuel McLean, makes the cost of desensitization all too clear. To wit: “I give and bequeath unto my loving wife, Elizabeth, my Negro woman named Dicey… and all my household and kitchen furniture, wagons, horses, cattle, hogs, sheep and stock of every kind except as may be necessary to defray the expense of the first item above.”


To speak of a Black woman in the same category as furniture and livestock and to think nothing of leaving all equally to one’s heirs is undoubtedly a kind of bondage, no? White supremacy’s most horrific iteration—chattel slavery—destroyed Black bodies as it confined the White soul. So too did segregation require moral sequestration among its beneficiaries. And the same ethical novocaine that made possible human trafficking makes probable our indifference to systemic suffering today. 


By embracing the liberation struggle and each of its signal events, of which Juneteenth is one, Whites can begin to reconnect with that humanity whose forfeiture was the price of our ticket. 


How we commemorate is less important than the fact of commemoration itself. We must speak with our children about the cost paid by Black people for the national bounty we enjoy, about the bill that has come due for that history, and how we intend to make payment on that bill, materially, and by linking to the tradition of White allyship and antiracist solidarity. No, it is not a long enough tradition, to be sure; but it is there for the joining, there to teach us a different way of living in this skin.


We must commemorate Juneteenth—a day of deliverance from one form of racist evil—by recommitting to a fuller liberation that can deliver the nation from more subtle forms. This comes not from a place of guilt but one of responsibility. We are not guilty for the world as we find it, but we have found it all the same. And if that world has marginalized some as it has elevated others—in this case, ourselves—responsibility requires us to say “enough.” And to celebrate those steps on the road to something better. 


TIM WISE is an antiracism educator and author of nine books, including the memoir White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull/Counterpoint) and his latest, Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights).

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