In June of 1992 I arrived in LA to work with Dr. E.V. Hill at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church. It was the summer after my sophomore year of college and only weeks after the Rodney King riots. My daily commute took me through the charred neighborhoods that I had seen on TV. The truth is, I am not sure that I gave much to that community, but I sure learned a ton from them.
My second day in LA was Juneteenth, and the church had a big potluck celebration. I had never heard of it before. I remember pans and pans of fried chicken and the red pop alongside the red velvet cake (which I had also never seen before. I live in the north, people). Since that day almost 30 years ago, I have never celebrated and only occasionally thought about Juneteenth again.
With the designation of Juneteenth as a national holiday this week, I have been reflecting on how I imagine the average white American reacts. “That’s a nice thing for black people.” Implied in this response is that it is a holiday that has nothing to do with them.
Here’s why that thinking is flawed. Slavery was an evil institution for hundreds of years in our country. It negatively affected all Americans. White enslavers committed criminal acts of cruelty and abuse. White society viewed blacks as inferior and sub-human. Sanctioned enslavement of people of color is our original sin. The abolition of the institution of slavery was a great step forward in our striving to our ideals: a democracy for all people.
My fellow white folx, we don’t need to throw a party today. Instead spend some time reflecting and learning. Here’s a great list of ideas to get you started. Check out the actual history of what happened on June 19, 1865. Read the book at the top of this post or Caste.
Everyone should honor the end of the horrific institution of slavery, which improved this country for all people (although not equally). The federal holiday of Juneteenth does not fix the issues of equity in this country anymore than MLK’s birthday did. But it is a small step to remember a historic positive shift in our country and to dedicate ourselves to continue the work.