Today is Juneteenth, an unofficial holiday that grew out of a relatively obscure event, but one which has gained increased significance these days. We are in troubled times now, but I think this day is still worth celebrating. We don’t have any official holidays to celebrate the ending of slavery in the United States; the ratification of the 13th Amendment occurred on December 6, and the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, with an effective date of January 1. But Juneteenth has the virtue of spontaneity and an up-from-the-grassroots spirit, so it works even better as a day of commemoration.
In my ideal world, the anniversary of the end of slavery would be celebrated with national pride and a sense of relief, accompanied by resolutions on how to do better at wiping out the remainder of that American stain, a solemn day but also a joyous one. For now, though, I think more about the distance yet to travel than about the distance already gone, significant though it is. The last several weeks have demonstrated with painful clarity the inequities still present in our society, so this year’s mood is more about cleaning wounds than about celebrating progress.
I remember my own upbringing, in a tiny, lily-white school in a rural district. There were a couple of African-American kids on basketball teams in our conference, but that was my only contact with African-Americans other than television, until 4-H camp one year when there were others in my cabin. But really, until college I had no practical contact with families of another race. So I still have a lot of ground to catch up, even at my age. As a teacher, I had a fair number of African-American students, and dealing with them was a wonderful learning experience for me. I even had one of my former students call me “a favorite professor” recently, which I wear as a tremendous badge of honor.
Simply put, in the area where I grew up, casual racism was the norm. I remember after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, the mother of one of my classmates offered her take on the situation in the most vulgar, racist language imaginable, shocking me to my core. My parents had brought me up to be considerate of others and had taught me the evil of racism, and to hear it spoken aloud by a trusted elder was devastating. I would like to imagine our country has outgrown those attitudes, but I know it’s not true. Another former classmate recently posted a remark on social media that was flat-out racist. Some of us called him on it, but he was unrepentant. I suppose the only difference is that fewer people nowadays (I hope) hold such beliefs, and that others are more willing to challenge them. But racism is alive and well.
I’ve been listening to the Slow Burn podcast on the career of David Duke, and it’s disheartening. I’d like to think that we’ve gotten past people like him. Unfortunately, the road ahead of us is probably as long as the road behind.