As I write this, the pillorying of Rachel Dolezal has been wiped from the front pages by the tragic murder of nine innocents at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. A young man steeped in the rhetoric of Nazism and apartheid has been arrested for the hate crime. Both occur during the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, which commemorates the day Texas slaves were finally freed, an event that is celebrated now in at least 40 other states. Juneteenth is not yet the federal unpaid holiday some hope it may someday become. But it is a time for remembering not so much the injustices of the past but the remarkable resilience and perseverance of an entire people through the most shameful period in American history.
150 years would seem a watershed of sorts. The anniversary arrives amidst two polarities: a white woman identifying as black, and a white man who feels so strongly that blacks must be eliminated that he would murder them. If we extend the definition of “anniversary” to include the entire year, we see the recent swimming pool incident in McKinney, TX, and an alarming number of black men killed by white police officers, some of whom have been indicted while others have walked. This extended view of the Juneteenth anniversary would include the Oscar won by songwriters John Legend and Common for Selma’s “Glory,” who accepted the award by reminding the audience that more black men are now incarcerated in American prisons than were held in bondage during slavery.
All of this is happening during the final innings of the Obama presidency, itself a kind of watershed and a reminder of the paradox we inhabit. In this watershed moment, more blacks are free today than ever before. Whole families have scuttled out of poverty into the relative security of the vanishing middle class. Some are rich. The playing field has been leveled to an extent. But not all of it and not for everyone.
If a watershed moment is a time for remembering, it is also a time for taking stock. This Juneteenth is therefore an opportunity to decide who we are. To reflect on our past and use its lessons to define the present. This is how we become wise. This is how we create the future.
As many, including the President, have already remarked, the church massacre in South Carolina echoes the Birmingham church-bombing of 1963. In the curious case of Spokane’s black/white woman, there are echoes of Soul Sister and Black Like Me. In the history of Emanuel AME Church, we hear echoes of the entire African-American experience. Going back to 1816, its past contains links to a slave uprising, the period shortly afterward when slaves were not allowed to worship together, and the post-Civil War reconstruction that began in 1865. It survived the indignities of Jim Crow and stayed the course during the renaissance that was the Civil Rights Movement. It has not been missed by the media that the name Emanuel means “God with us.” Hearing this, one thinks: how else could they have survived all that?
Which is precisely the point of Juneteenth. It is a time to celebrate freedom. To remember that Texas has given us much more than a swimming pool in McKinney. A time to realize the connection between June 19, 1865 and July 4, 1776. For it was on Juneteenth—89 years after the birth of our nation—that America’s Declaration of Independence began to move into integrity with itself.
Our national holiday to celebrate freedom should be a festival on a par with Mardi Gras, running from June 19 through July 4th –a two-week celebration as significant as the time between Christmas and New Year’s.
Much of what we witness today is saturated with irony and déjà vu. The wheel turns, but we have not come full circle. “There is more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done.”
If there are times when the odds seem impossible, you keep on pushing, keep on keeping on. Wickedness and evil may reach unnameable proportions. And you may find yourself in the same silence as Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable wherein there is this realization: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I go on.”
How does this happen? Emanuel, that’s how. The “force that through the green fuse grows the flower” creates also the bliss that is Juneteenth.