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  • Robison Wells

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot


Today we're celebrating Juneteenth, a day that celebrates the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States. Beginning last year, my work made it a paid holiday. Beginning this year, it's a federal holiday.


Just as there are always pleas at Memorial Day to remember that its a day honoring our fallen heroes--not just a day for cookouts and boating at the lake--I hope that we take a moment during our Friday off to recall the history of this day. It's the day when General Order No. 3 proclaimed the end of slavery in Texas, June 19th, 1865.


It had been two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, but it wasn't enforced by the Union troops in Texas until that time. I think that's an important thing to remember on Juneteenth: just because something is a law doesn't mean that it's a lived reality for the people in the streets. Yes, the Texas blacks had been pronounced free in 1863, but they weren't treated as free. That pattern remains clear all the way from the Reconstruction and Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter. A law doesn't make someone free, not really. Only the cultural acceptance of an idea and a radical change of heart in the population will make it so.

I

'm dismayed by the fact that I didn't learn about Juneteenth until just a few years ago. Yes, I live in a very white state, but I also majored in political science and history in college. I would have thought it would have come up and I'm disappointed that it never did. There's a lot of our American history--especially in regards to civil rights--that seems to go unnoticed by the racial majority. We need look no further than the Tulsa Race Massacre, a major, tragic event that seemed to have been forgotten by the country's collective consciousness until a sci-fi TV show made us aware of it again.


Juneteenth is an opportunity to reflect back on the days of injustice in our past, and the days of injustice in our present. Because make no mistake: not everyone in this country is free. Chains may look different today than they did two hundred years ago, but the chains are still there--they look like poverty, hunger, lack of education, lack of representation, inequity at the bargaining table, no presence on the board of directors, being on the wrong side of the desk, being on the wrong side of the law. And more. And more and more.


Speaking on liberty, Rousseau wrote "Man is free, but he is everywhere in chains." Speaking on the color of his skin, Ralph Ellison wrote "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."


Juneteenth is a time to work in the struggle--that may seem never-ending, but it doesn't have to be!--to get rid of those chains. It's a time to stop refusing to see people because of the color of their skin.


That's why we (some of us) have the day off on Friday. Yes, have a cookout if you want to--it's a celebration! Gather with family and friends, enjoy the freedom from COVID if you can, and remember together the sacrifices and courage and proclamations and speeches and marches in the past that have brought us this far--and then reaffirm your resolve to go farther. Juneteenth is a holiday that requires something of us: it requires our attention, our commitment, and our unity.


I am dismayed by the opposition to the federal holiday (which, admittedly, comes from a small minority). The chief complaint seems to be that it's being called a National Independence Day, and, the detractors say, we already have a National Independence Day. But I will go out on a limb (a pretty strong limb that doesn't feel like it's going to break) and say that the kind of independence that we as a country gained through the Emancipation Proclamation making us independent from a problem that was far more pernicious than unjust taxes and lack of representation. Juneteenth celebrates an independence not from financial penalties but from degradation of humanity and inhuman abuses. We have every right to call it a National Independence Day.


But, like I said, the opposition is small and predictable, and their complaints aren't going to stop it from becoming a true National Independence Day.


I'll end with the famous last stanza from Maya Angelou's poem:

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear I rise Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise I rise I rise

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