It is almost a reflex, after so many centuries of brainwashing, for a Black person to feel gratitude for any semblance of humane treatment from other human beings. “Black,” as a racial category, is, after all, a hegemonic European creation designed to forever separate the darker skinned peoples of the African diaspora from the homo sapien species and mark us as inherently bestial, mongrel, and inferior. This is a convenient and enduring lie used to justify the perpetual and inescapable enslavement and degradation of millions upon millions of African peoples. The lie is designed, and is necessary, to soothe the European (and eventually, the just-plain white) conscience such that their crimes against humanity could be seen instead as humanitarian efforts.
The first enslaved Africans arrived on this land almost 500 years ago, in 1539, in the territory now known as Florida. It is astounding how that clarifies so many things about the pathology of that state. For 326 years, kidnapped Africans were forced to labor against their will and endure unspeakable abuse, which was often fatal. And, after slavery allegedly ended, the survivors and descendants of that ruthless enterprise have spent the last 157 years in abject terror (even when and after a Black person was elected president).
It is a miracle that we are still here; and it should be expected that, though we survived, we are not unscathed.
And our scars measure history: The Texas Ancestors did not receive the news of the Emancipation Proclamation—President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 statement marking the end of antebellum slavery—until years later. And even then, the military was required to enforce the proclamation as some white people refused to give up those they had enslaved, and do their own backbreaking work. We call this delay Juneteenth, and have created a culture of celebration around white Texans being forced to obey a law they believed themselves above (and still do). I find that interesting because I recently discovered that some of the Ancestors never received the news at all, and were held in bondage until the 1960s in places like Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
For other Ancestors, slavery had simply changed its name to “prison industrial complex” to make the institution more palatable to modern sensibilities. The 13th Amendment’s caveat explains that slavery is considered illegal “except as punishment for a crime”; and “crime” can only be defined by those with power and can only apply to those without it. So, the plantation became the prison, overseers became officers, and bruises seemed the “natural” and “acceptable” consequence of every encounter between Black and blue.
But it was not just our Ancestors who failed to receive the news of freedom. The white people who lynched Mary Turner on May 19, 1918, for instance; who sliced through her pregnant belly and stomped her unborn child to death—clearly, they did not receive the news. Nor did the white people who defiled themselves by first lying on and then murdering Emmett Till. Did the white people who blew up four little girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church hear? What about Timothy McVeigh or white-identifying George Zimmerman or Dylan Storm Roof or Payton Gendron? When white police officer Derek Chauvin defiantly knelt on George Floyd’s neck for the entire world to see—did he know? The expression on his face seemed to indicate that he did not care one way or the other.
It does not seem like Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, or Massa’s Favorite Nig Clarence Thomas have heard. Nor have many of the politicians across this country; a country not at all united, but comprised of stolen pieces hobbled together by anger, bloodlust, and the worship of a star-spangled piece of cloth. Their actions say either they did not hear, or that they did hear and cannot bear the sound for one second longer.
One wonders what Ron DeSantis, Greg Abbott, Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, Kyrsten Sinema, Joe Manchin, and, chief among them, Donald Trump, have planned for our hides this go-round. One shudders to imagine how easily they will manipulate entire masses of white people (and, sadly, not just white people) to do their hideous work for them. One hopes they remember a message that Ancestor James Baldwin sent to Angela Davis—a message intentionally obscured, now, by non-Black panic over Black history and critical analysis, and by the concerted efforts of public schools—which, themselves, serve more as holding cells, or target practice, than anything else—to indoctrinate rather than educate: “if they take [me] in the morning, they will be coming for [you] at night. Therefore, peace.”
But they will not heed. Because they imagine themselves exempt. One becomes almost giddy with the prospect of seeing the looks of utter shock on their faces when they discover that one’s own violence is not, in fact, a rock: it is, instead, a boomerang. Americans do not know this because Americans despise knowledge, and thus, Americans can be easily misled.
That might explain the country’s backward, sacrilegious nature: Harriet Tubman spent her entire adult life attempting to escape from a system that considered her nothing more than currency, only to be conscripted to such after death. A twenty-dollar bill with her face on it is the most blasphemous full-circle moment imaginable.
Another inimical act: How do you create a holiday for a man (Martin Luther King, Jr.) whom you despised and hounded before you eventually assassinated? Whose hard-fought civil-rights wins you are trying, with all of your might (and succeeding!), to undo? What is the function other than to dilute and obscure his legacy such that it can be made malleable, and used against those it was meant to uplift?
And now, before the country has even reckoned with or been held accountable for its ongoing domestic and global offenses, particularly against Black peoples, it has created a new holiday, to rejoice in the name of a freedom that has been elusive at best, and, at worst, imaginary. The irony of the Juneteenth holiday is that it is, like all other superficial rather than substantive measures, premature.
It is not that the news of freedom came too late; as it turns out, it is that it came too early.
Symbolic gestures do not right wrongs; they do not restore what has been stolen nor do they heal festering wounds. Their only purpose is camouflage; an attempt by the guilty to absolve themselves of guilt. But blood debts can be paid neither by credit nor by promise. What is required is a sacrifice: a giving up, a giving away, a giving in, a giving to. But there is no one among us with courage enough to confront, much less accept, that unassailable fact.
Instead: Walmart had Juneteenth ice cream—red velvet and cheesecake flavors, I think. I am sure they were scrumptious. There are t-shirts. Soon, if there are not already, there will be Juneteenth greeting cards, bandanas, flags, stickers, bicycle-handle streamers, socks, and sneakers. Perhaps there will be jewelry at some point: gold bracelets that look like broken shackles. I cannot wait for the action figures: Black people dressed in rags; smiling big, red-lipped smiles; hands held high in jubilation. Slave cabins sold separately.
Commodification is another word for deceit; for distraction, obfuscation, disconnection, obsequience. It makes us first cousins once-removed from reality. It is the conduit through which we are able to, doggedly, hold on to the myths that assure us of our innocence, even in the midsts of our complicity.
The only thing Americans hate more than being told what to do is being told the truth. Our egos being our most abundant resource.
The only thing any American wants to hear is that we are “good.” No: better than good, we are great! We are the greatest in the world! We are God’s chosen people (though, no one admits that this god’s name is Mammon). We swear we are generous and pious and rich and kind and hardworking and heroic and wholesome and peaceful and brave. And any mistakes we might have made (and that is a very big MIGHT) are forever in the past; further and further and further until there is no past; until all that is left is a mystifying blankness. We gaze into it to see our own bright nothingness reflected back at us. And we are not even honorable enough to feel shame. Instead, we smile, with unwarranted smugness, at the desecration we have turned ourselves into.
“Happy Juneteenth” is a blistering oxymoron. For how does one find happiness in pretense, in an empty token, in a pact perpetually broken, in a claim relentlessly untrue?
In that case then, the American identity itself is the ultimate Juneteenth. For, it seems that the news—of our profound dishonesty, hypocrisy, savagery, and vacancy—has not reached us yet, either.