Juneteenth: A day to celebrate, A day to be inspired

A blog written by the Rev Liz Blythe

 

Liz Blythe is Wellington’s locum minister. Born in Louisiana, she grew up in Texas. She attended The University of Texas at Austin and Princeton Theological Seminary. She was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2005. Liz and her family (the rest of them all Scots!) moved to Glasgow in 2017.

 

 

When I was a child Juneteenth just was.  It was a holiday with as little explanation as Labour Day or Fair Day (when every school child in the state of Texas has the day off school ostensibly to attend the State Fair of Texas in Dallas).  As I got older, I became more aware of the celebrations of Juneteenth. 

There was a parade down Martin Luther King, Jr Blvd in Dallas and a celebration at the Cotton Bowl (an American College Football stadium in Dallas which seats 75,500 people).  Marching bands came from Historic Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), like Prairie View A & M and Grambling, to play the most joyous marching bands music you ever heard!  They’d play jazz and spirituals and and things you never heard a marching band play – things that made your feet tap and your body sway.  They’d march, not in the boring straight lines of my high school marching band (where we played opera and rock and classical music while executing ambitious shows of lines and curves).  They’d dance and move to the music, raising their knees high as they strutted to formations with skill and joy and lung capacity unknown by suburban high school kids.

Inside the stadium there was more music and readings and speeches by famous civil rights activists like Al Shaprton and local heroes and authors.  It was a day of joy…that was mostly hidden to me.  It was not deemed respectable.  It was deemed vaguely dangerous (though I do not recall any actual violence coming from the actual celebrations).  It was deemed a place that a suburban white girl shouldn’t go if she wanted to maintain her ‘reputation’.  (I was never very much aware of having any kind of reputation, but I was told often enough I might lose it over one thing or another.)

Though I was not allowed to go see the parade…or even watch it on TV except when I could sneak a look while no one was around, the joy of the celebration could not be hemmed in, could not be kept hidden. 

An early celebration of Emancipation Day (Juneteenth) in 1900 (source: Wikipedia)

It wasn’t until I moved to North Carolina in 1999 that I realised that Juneteenth wasn’t ‘a thing’ anywhere but Texas.  It stands to reason, I suppose.  It is the celebration of the day (June 19th 1865) the news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas (two months after the defeat of the Confederate States and Lincoln’s famous speech in April), but Juneteenth had been such a big deal, so obviously worthy of celebration, that I had assumed the whole country would celebrate.  Not until I moved to Baltimore, MD in 2005 did I live in another place where Juneteenth was celebrated, and there it was done with as much joy (though without the HBC marching bands, sadly – that’s really a very southern thing and Baltimore isn’t very southern) as I had experienced in Texas.  

Juneteenth remains a day of joy for me.  It is tinged with sadness.  It saddens me that slaves toiled in the fields and homes and factories of slave owners for at least two months after the law had set them free.  It saddens me that it took an amendment (the 13th) to the Constitution to truly set slaves free.  It saddens me that most were not truly free of the slave master due to the forced dependency of Reconstruction, the reality of which lasted for generations, the legacy of which lasts even today.  But still, there is joy.  Joy that the formal ownership of humans in The United States of America was no longer acceptable.  Joy that former slaves now owned their own heads, their wives and husbands, their children – as much as any of us ‘own’ our children!

See, it is a day of simple joy with a complex root.  Like the Israelites who fled across the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14), there was reason to celebrate.  There was sadness in their past (Ex 1-13).  There would be hard work ahead, but now, for this moment, it was worth a celebration (Ex 15).

So today, even though nothing just now is ideal, how will you take a moment to endeavour in joy as a celebration of the freedom you have to celebrate?  How will you celebrate your family?  Your friends? the fact that you have a roof over your head?  That no one owns you?  That you are your own person?  What decision do you have that needs making, but you are afraid to make?  How can you stand in solidarity with people of colour?  How can you use your freedom and power to advocate and vote and hire and spend money in a way that will benefit BAME people?  Let us harness the hard won joy of this day and take the brave step toward a better future – more equitable and just.


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