Image: Freed Woman and Freed Man Sculptures by Adrienne Rison Isom at the Juneteenth Memorial Monument at The George Washington Carver Museum, Culture, and Genealogy Center representing how the news of freedom spread. Photo: CC BY-SA 4.0–
On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger announced in Galveston, TX, that slavery had ended at President Lincoln’s order two years previous, and to enforce that order in Galveston. Ever since, June 19, “Juneteenth,” has been a day for celebration among those who were freed and those who believe in the freedom of all Americans.
I didn’t learn about Juneteenth until I was a graduate student in Chicago. I thought of myself as an educated person (B.A., University of Tennessee) but as a white person educated in the south in the 1960’s and 70’s I didn’t hear about it. There was a reason for that, of course – despite the progress made by the Civil Rights Movement, the culture I grew up in did not celebrate African American history. I knew about Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver and that was about it. I was, to be blunt, ignorant.
Now, Juneteenth has taken on special meaning for me. Every year it comes as a challenge: what have I learned this year? What have I done in the last year to free myself from the mind-slavery of ignorance and white supremacy? Here are some of the questions I ask of myself:
Which black-owned businesses do I regularly patronize?
Which books by black authors have I bought and read?
Can I remember a time this year when a person of color was talking and I shut my mouth, opened my ears and I listened respectfully? Did I learn anything?
Can I remember a time this year when someone called me out for my words or behavior around race? How did I respond? Did I learn anything from the experience?
Do I owe a person of color an apology?
Do I owe a person of color thanks for teaching me?
Are there nonprofits in my tzedakah budget that work to undo racial injustice?
Are there nonprofits in my tzedakah budget that ought to have persons of color on their boards and don’t? Have I raised that issue with them?
This is a long term plan for self-improvement, a long term plan with accountability. I keep it separate from my annual Elul self-examination and do it on Juneteenth because I know it makes me uncomfortable and I think it needs special attention.
We now live in a time when Juneteenth is mentioned in major newspapers, so I get my annual reminder. I take the time between June 19 and the end of the month to make teshuvah.
I am a white American, and I have work to do.
(P.S. – If you are a person of color and I owe you an apology, I’m all ears. I may not be aware that I messed up, and I’m sorry about that. If you contact me I would consider it a favor.)