Tomorrow is Juneteenth, “the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States,” one of the more complex observational “holidays” in the USA, because the date of June Nineteenth is related to a number of other key dates, including:
- September 22, 1862 when President Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation
- January 3, 1863 when the final Emancipation Proclamation came into law
- April 9, 1865 when General Lee (Confederates) surrendered to General Grant (Unionists)
- June 19, 1865 when slaves in Galveston, Texas received the news of the Emancipation Proclamation
- December 6, 1856 when the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution abolishing slavery was ratified
- August 20, 1866 when President Johnson declared an end to the Civil War
It took years, people. Years between presidential decree and public notice. Many more years until widespread implementation.
And over a hundred years later, a black teenager (whom I dated when he was in his 60s) had a gun pointed at him by his white female employer at the restaurant in South Carolina where he worked as a dishwasher because she didn’t like how he was talking to a white female waitress.
Sit with those facts, people. Sit with them until their cruelty penetrates. Sit until your conscious is pricked so hard it bleeds.
The name of that restaurant? The Branding Iron.
What happened next? The gun went off. Fortunately – accidentally! – no one was physically harmed. The bullet missed that sweet young boy’s legs, and hit the wall. Somehow he managed to remove the gun from his employer’s hand and give it back to her.
(The ironies just keep coming, don’t they?)
“There were so many instances,” my friend muses during a recent conversation when I asked him about the details, “so many over the years.”
We are. Not done.
Along with promoting feminism due to persistent, institutionalized sexism, I insist that black lives matter (and Native lives matter) due to persistent, systemic racism.
We all need to learn the essential history of how and why basic activities like driving a car, applying for a job, and deciding how to style one’s hair is fraught with anxiety for most Black and Native people in America. If only we could all make a concerted effort to place ourselves in the shoes of our fellow citizens, instead of pushing back or resorting to cultivated ignorance.
One more thing.
On behalf of anyone outside the awareness loop, I’m going to pause and explain why the phrase “All Lives Matter” is unhelpful. As a colleague pointed out, oftentimes when people say “All Lives Matter” defensively, it is because they actually mean, All People Like Me matter. The comeback phrase originates from feelings of insecurity and scarcity: when people believe they must defend their turf/opportunities/position in society or it will be taken away from them.
Another use of the phrase “All Lives Matter” is an attempt to assert one’s wokeness. It is said by folks who don’t have any close POC friends, because if they did have true friends who were people of color, those friends would have told them why that phrase isn’t helpful.
So! I continue wearing the tank top. As an ally and advocate, I recognize the need to keep this maddening reality on our collective radar screens. I believe that, with empathy and determination, we can inspire reflection, education, and positive action. It will take another thousand thousand thousand steps: might as well start now.
How does your heart feel? Mine is heavy in the knowledge that the fights that our parents fought, and theirs before them, are still not won. That we still have to take to the streets and say, “Please, I’d like to be allowed to be a person. Is that ok with you?”
But, for the first time, maybe ever, it’s also hopeful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen non-minority people rally around us to lift up our voices, leaving their houses in their thousands to say enough is enough. But the past few months have shown me it can happen.
I’m hopeful things can change, but I’m also afraid of getting my heart broken. – Sophie WIlliams, 4/21/2021
Let’s fast-forward to the beginning of this year, a time when billions of people sighed in relief.
Some of the most noteworthy, spine-tingling, hallelujah moments during the January 2021 inauguration ceremony involved watching Amanda Gorman read her poem, “The Hill We Climb.” At the time of my writing this post, over two million of us have relived those moments re-watching the PBS video of her reading, freely available on YouTube.
This month, June 2021, we celebrate the continuation of a new presidential administration with our Black/South Asian Vice President Kamala Harris, accompanied by a sea change in representation throughout the U.S. government during the first 100 days that President Biden spent in office: of “the approximately 1,500 agency appointees hired by President Biden so far… 18% identify as Black or African American.”
And now we have Juneteenth declared as a national holiday, meaning that even more millions of Americans will finally learn what that word means (or at least begin to learn what the word means). In honor of this, my most recent Minx & Jinx Instagram post pokes fun at how we can all become more culturally attuned to one another.
Juneteenth and Amanda Gorman connects to a poem of mine entitled “Random Acts” – a strike against racism (or any -ism that is “no fault of the zygote”) that asserts, “As if the hue of our flesh = the caliber, wakefulness, or evolution of our souls.”
“Random Acts” was featured in 2019 in the biweekly radio show, Rhythm Running River, by poet, activist, and DJ Dan Roberts on Mendocino County’s public broadcasting station, KZYX&Z. You can listen to “Random Acts” streamed on this link (spoken beginning at Minute 10:00 in the recording), or you can read the words in this post.
The poem “Random Acts” – like most (or close to all?) of my poetry, centers on the theme of love: love-infused storyscapes, acts of love, meanings of love, vagaries of love. This month, June 2021, another of my love-centric poems, “Cardioelectromagnetism,” is featured on Dan’s show. The poem was submitted as part of the 36th annual Mendocino Spring Poetry Celebration: always held in person pre-pandemic, for Spring 2020 and Spring 2021 we’ve held it in absentia with poets self-recording our works and conveying them to Dan, who mixes them into various shows, interspersed with recent releases of world musicians.
In this latest poem, I play with all manner of metaphors relating to the inherent contradictory forces we contain within ourselves as we seek to love, and be loved. How does this relate to racism and Juneteenth? Well, if it’s not obvious, the poem reminds us of our underlying sameness, our ability to both harm and be harmed, and points to the possibility of choosing better.
You can listen to “Cardioelectromagnetism” streamed on this link (spoken beginning at Minute 36:50 in the recording), or you can read the words below.
A reminder to everyone who craves more poetry and deep reflection in their life: you can subscribe to the Rhythm Running River email announcements by visiting Dan’s website and savor live poetry all year long! Dan sends out emails prior to each show listing the poetry + music line-up, and emails afterward with links to stream or download the entire show (it’s free and open access, but we all know that donating whatever we can keeps good things going).