juneteenth

in which, once again and imperatively, we listen. this time to the words of abraham lincoln, Black activist jadon-maurice forbes, and poets maya angelou and marilyn nelson…

“a proclamation,” it begins, simply, declaratively. a beginning ground deep in the soil of justice. long overdue justice. 

“Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

so begins president lincoln’s emancipation proclamation, issued at the dawn of the new year, 1863.

so why did it take till the 19th of june in 1865 for the slaves of galveston, texas, to find out they were free?

juneteenth, at heart, is the commemoration of that announcement of overdue emancipation— marking the official end of slavery in these united states — a full two and a half years after lincoln’s proclamation. 

quoting from juneteenth.com:

“Later attempts to explain this two and a half year delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years. Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All of which, or none of these versions could be true. Certainly, for some, President Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states was in question.  Whatever the reasons, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.”

why did it take till the 19th of june in 2020 for most of a nation to awake to the lingering injustices, to finally empower one Black activist, jadon-maurice forbes, to write: “Juneteenth, perhaps for the first time, is for all of us.”

for all of us to inventory our souls, to ask the hard, hard questions: what are the isms in my life that put up walls? where are my blinders? what are the ways i acquiesce to otherism? and, most emphatically, how can i break down whatever stands between me and true and unbiased justice for all?

forbes goes on to write:

This is a day that my grandmother taught me to honor as the beginnings of a new life for the African diaspora. She was very close to her African-American heritage and wanted to impart that quality to me. So much so that she would replace my Hooked-on-Phonics books with ones she felt were more suitable — like Imani and the Flying Africans — a fantastic tale of a band of Africans taking to the sky to escape to freedom.

When I think of Juneteenth, I often imagine those winged, black faces breaking their chains and finding freedom. But the true American tale of how slaves were freed is more grounded in a nuanced, complicated, and painful struggle for freedom that has continued for 155 years (read: that means ‘til today). Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day the last of the enslaved Africans in America were freed from their chains, having continued to work in bondage for a full two years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

In many ways, Juneteenth is a bittersweet reminder of what was promised but never delivered to Black folks post-emancipation. It’s a reminder of delayed justice. Every year, even after my nana passed away, we celebrated this holiday. And every year, we do so in honor of progress as much as for a continually delayed sense of justice and equality.

But this Juneteenth is different. Can you feel it? We’re in a rare moment in that the world is coming together to really grapple with that delay. In the last three weeks, millions have taken to the street in honor of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and now, Rayshard Brooks, in addition to the many other Black people who have been killed at the hands of vigilantes or law enforcement. The explosion of protest is in response to a pattern of killings, piled onto the deadly impacts of COVID-19 and four years of Donald Trump.

linger over these unanswered questions. let them settle deep down to where your conscience unsettles you. ask where you might begin. and in the meantime, let maya angelou further stir your soul.

here she is reading “the slave auction,” a poem by frances ellen watkins harper, written in 1854, after harper, a Black poet, witnessed one such auction…

and read the words of poet and author marilyn nelson’s “juneteenth.” nelson, the daughter of one of the last of the tuskegee airmen, was a three-time finalist for the national book award, poet laureate of connecticut, winner of the robert frost medal, and more and more and more. but before you read her poems, read this short bit she wrote on “how i discovered poetry”:

It was like soul-kissing, the way the words
filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk.
All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15,
but Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds borne
by a breeze off Mount Parnassus. She must have seen
the darkest eyes in the room brim: The next day
she gave me a poem she’d chosen especially for me
to read to the all except for me white class.
She smiled when she told me to read it, smiled harder,
said oh yes I could. She smiled harder and harder
until I stood and opened my mouth to banjo playing
darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats. When I finished
my classmates stared at the floor. We walked silent
to the buses, awed by the power of words.

and, now as promised, nelson’s poems. first up, “juneteenth,” and then, the riveting “worth.”

juneteenth

With her shiny black-patent sandals
and her Japanese parasol,
and wearing a brand-new Juneteenth dress,
Johnnie’s a living doll.

Juneteenth: when the Negro telegraph
reached the last sad slave…
It’s Boley’s second Easter;
the whole town a picnic.

Children run from one church booth
to the next, buying sandwiches,
sweet-potato pie, peach cobbler
with warm, sweaty pennies.

The flame of celebration
ripples like glad news
from one mouth to the next.

These people slipped away
in the middle of the night;
arrived in Boley with nothing
but the rags on their backs.
These carpenters, contractors, cobblers.
These bankers and telephone operators.
These teachers, preachers, and clerks.
These merchants and restaurateurs.
These peanut-growing farmers,
these wives halting the advance of cotton
with flowers in front of their homes.

Johnnie’s father tugs one of her plaits,
head-shaking over politics
with the newspaper editor,
who lost his other ear
getting away from a lynch-mob.

Worth

For Ruben Ahoueya

Today in America people were bought and sold:
five hundred for a “likely Negro wench.”
If someone at auction is worth her weight in gold,
how much would she be worth by pound? By ounce?
If I owned an unimaginable quantity of wealth,
could I buy an iota of myself?
How would I know which part belonged to me?
If I owned part, could I set my part free?
It must be worth something—maybe a lot—
that my great-grandfather, they say, killed a lion.
They say he was black, with muscles as hard as iron,
that he wore a necklace of the claws of the lion he’d fought.
How much do I hear, for his majesty in my blood?
I auction myself. And I make the highest bid.

how will you mark juneteenth? how will you join in the movement for justice for all?