I’d never even heard of Juneteenth until I started living in Texas. The international mythology around US abolitionism and emancipation is, like British abolitionist mythology, so thick that no one had ever told me it took the enslaved people of Texas two and half years to discover that President Lincoln’s executive order had taken effect in January 1863.
They spent two and a half extra years in slavery.
White Texans spent two and a half extra years deluded about their supremacy.
Two and a half years. Maybe a century and a half more, if we account for the life and death of James Byrd, Jr. (CN: lynching.)
I might not have believed the story of Juneteenth if I hadn’t seen the historical evidence for it, because it’s such a perversely perfect story premise: the people of Galveston are people forgotten in a network of soul-destroying laws and customs whose time has already gone. They don’t know they’re living in the future.
When the sun rises on January 1, 1863, nothing changes for them, and no one brings them the news that could help them to change their lives themselves. The war is over; they don’t know it. Their freedom is recovered; they have no inkling. Life continues as it always has, crushing them one by one.
This morning at work, the choir closed service with Jill Scott’s song “Golden.” (The lyrics are fairly simple.)
This song was playing in the background as I read President Obama describing Juneteenth as “a time to recommit ourselves to the work that remains undone.”
It’s that. It’s also a time to reflect on all of the ways we’re still waiting to inhabit freedom and wholeness we already are, freedom and wholeness undermined in contexts that would rather we be fragmented and compliant, not flourishing, not creative.
In the shadow of 103 of my siblings—LGBTQ, Latinx, Black—I can’t avoid seeing how easily my freedom and safety can be snatched if the raiders have enough brute force, enough fire power, enough doctrinal authority. I hate that something so fundamental to me can be so fragile.
And I’m looking for that news from DC that hasn’t yet made it to my life’s Galvestons. I’m looking for the word that restores the original blessings that are mine. If I’m part of communities that are free but don’t know it and therefore can’t experience the fullness of freedom, the very word, freedom, begins to lose its substance. As much as I’m embodied, as much as you can map my location and trace my life in time, my freedom has to be more than an abstract thing. Our freedom can’t be a theory. It has to be lived, material, as enfleshed and well-formed as we are.
Freedom has to filter into the very same policies, customs, channels, and systems that supremacism and enslavement did. Otherwise we can’t live free. That’s what restoration means: not that we port ourselves into disembodied space where everything’s alright and there are no worries, but that we restructure the world that is until it is the world it can be.
I’m cautioning myself, in the name of my ancestors, to stop looking to people and organizations for permissions that they don’t have the authority to grant or deny, and I’m authorizing myself. I’m not focusing on the ways that the world is committed to my limits; I’m focusing on the steps I can take, the new work I can begin, the facts that I haven’t yet seen because I’ve taken others’ stories about me for granted and haven’t fully claimed my own stories:
I am responsible.
I am capable.
I am free.
The work that remains undone is the manifestation of a world in which we can all flourish, in which we’re all free. Our visionaries have long proclaimed us free, but we still have to get that news to Galveston.