Family Friday: Juneteenth

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Juneteenth!

These last three weeks I have written about our communities in the wake of George Floyd. I still hope that George Floyd’s horrific murder will mark yet another turning point in our country and that we will learn from this painful experience. Much of my scholarship on slavery and religion in the United States includes stories as horrifying as Floyd’s murder. I will never forget how often I read about salt being rubbed into wounds made from lashings. These last three weeks our news cycles and streets have been filled with Black pain.

Last week I saw a famous white person, I forget who, post that we should make Juneteenth a somber and mournful national holiday. I respectfully disagree. Juneteenth should be a national holiday but I believe that it should be a celebration of Black joy and excellence. Even if you are not a historian of slavery, we are constantly seeing stories of Black pain. But June 19, 1865 is not a day to mourn. The Texas state holiday marks the day the last group of enslaved men, women and children in Texas learned about the Emancipation Proclamation. This was over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, two months after the Civil War ended, and just six months before the ratification of the 13th Amendment. While the Emancipation Proclamation only freed the people enslaved in the rebellious Confederate states and not the border states, symbolically it was the end of slavery by making the self-liberation happening across the South legal. Today is a day of joy and celebration on par with the Fourth of July. The rhetoric of freedom at the founding of our country is at home here.

To mark the end of slavery with a day of mourning would be to rub salt in the wounds of the Black community by centering white guilt over Black Joy. Today we should recognize the people like Kleaver Cruz and The Black Joy Project while honoring the shoulders he stands on like Audre Lorde. We should recognize Black Joy as resistance and Black excellence as something that didn’t start after Juneteenth. The genius of Africa gave us Carolina rice, banjos, and much more than we realize including the ancient origins of psychology. While faced with horrific dehumanization, brutal and violent oppression, enslaved Americans grew gardens, made good food, forged family connections, and hosted dances. Resistance to slavery took many forms not just insurrection and self-emancipation, but also music, dance, religion, and joy. Let us celebrate and continue this Joy.

Just as joy and excellence did not start with Juneteenth, the work to heal the wounds of slavery in the United States did not end on June 19, 1865. This is a day filled with hope and promise. Today we should look at our own communities with imagination and ask ourselves how we are going to help shape our homes into the joyful places we want to live. With love, happy Juneteenth!

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