Our duty to Juneteenth

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I’m going to ask you to do something hard, brothers and sisters, and I’m going to ask it of myself. Together let’s metaphorically close our eyes and enter the world of our imagination, the frightful part, the part that terrified us as children. Let’s go there for a moment and imagine a world where every morning is a fresh hell, every day a perpetuation of that hell.

In this world, days where we are not brutally kicked into wakefulness out of a poisoned and restless sleep are as good as our days ever get. What food we are given to start our day is awful by any standard and only marginally better than nothing. We eat our food in chains. Our skin is crisscrossed by the scars of the arbitrary lash of the whip, and rare are the days when we’ve had enough time to heal between pointless applications of that brutal giver of pain.

For us life has become only toil and horror, so toil and horror is all we know. But it’s a horror from which we cannot be seen to escape even symbolically. We must not cry, we must not complain, we must not look oppressed. The lash is always standing by to punish and subdue any unwanted assertions of our individual selves.

Our children have been taken from us, our wives, our husbands, our mothers and fathers. The very idea that we could hold anything sacred or expect to be treated as anything but nauseating insects creates revulsion in our tormentors. More than that, the whole society that protects the beasts who beat us are on their side because we are different, because we are dark. Our crime was to be born dark, and it was a crime not punishable by death, which would be infinitely preferred, but by brutal, unyielding, implacable and endless life — life in this hell. Even one of our songs speaks of the sweet chariot of death “comin’ for to carry me home.”

This is the world of the human slave. It is practiced and sustained by a people who would be shocked and horrified and outraged to be slaves themselves, brought up, paradoxically, on a Bible that tells them to do unto others as they would have others do unto them. Like all hypocrisies theirs has an escape clause. By “others” the Bible means human beings, they say, and we are not considered human beings. Theirs is a world of hypocrisy sustained for the profit and comfort and triumph of hypocrites, where justice flows in one direction only, away from us.

I would like to tell you, brothers and sisters, that you can now symbolically open your eyes again and thank you for participating in this experiment. But I can’t. You see, in order to do that I must ruin the effect. Because at no time from 1619 until 1865 was it possible for some human beings to escape the nightmare white slavers created. At no time could they open their eyes — symbolically or otherwise — and escape the nightmare. It is for that reason that we can never truly know what it was like to be a slave. Our imaginations don’t quite go that far.

Even after 1865, slavery of a kind continued. The institution had been abolished but the brutality and unreasoning hatred and lynching continued for a long, long time. Things have improved to be sure, but they are still light years short of perfection.

June 19th, or Juneteenth as it has come to be known, was instituted to celebrate the abolition of slavery in the United States, but also to remind us that justice, even still, is not complete. This week Congress passed a bill commemorating Juneteenth as National Independence Day. Fourteen house Republicans voted against it. Eight of those Republicans still closed their doors on Friday. They know an opportunity for a holiday when they see it.


But let’s not dwell too long on them lest even with the length of our contempt we give them too much attention. Instead let’s imagine what it’s like to be a slave, imperfectly to be sure, and try to be a little kinder, try to bring what goodness we can bring into a nation once wicked enough to allow one human being to own another. Above all let’s remember that none of us can ever be truly free until all of us are truly free. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.

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