Yesterday was Junteenth, and I felt weird. And still do. In the weeks since the murder of George Floyd at 38th and Chicago, we’ve seen a national uprising calling for justice. It’s been beautiful, especially as I’ve seen a lot of white folx like me turning to learn more about systemic racism, and in so doing finding ways to live out our learning by doing things like celebrate Juneteenth.
I don’t know when I first learned about Junteenth. I feel like I may have learned about it in elementary school, where February was always loaded with learning about Black History. Although I suppose I shouldn’t say I learned about Juneteenth as much as maybe I was taught it, because I have this rhythm in my life where every now and then a Junteenth rolls around and I think “oh yeah, It’s Juneteenth: That’s to celebrate to the end of slavery.” Then I forget about it again.
When President Trump planned his rally on this Junteenth, it happened again: “Oh yeah, That’s Juneteenth: that’s to celebrate the end of slavery. Interesting choice, Sir.” At risk of fueling President Trump’s fire, I really have no place critiquing his date of choice, because I was reminded of Juneteenth coming up only because of the news reports about the president’s originally scheduled rally Tulsa, OK. So, yeah, that’s where I’m at.
I think that’s why I feel weird. White friends all over my social media feed are posting about Juneteenth and even showing ways to celebrate, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s worth celebrating. But I feel like a fraud. It’s one thing that a lot of white people are learning about Juneteenth just now. It’s a whole other thing that white people like me keep forgetting about it year after year. Just learning about it now may be a failure in our education systems to teach it. Forgetting about it every year? That’s on my own racist, privileged self, my own junk to deal with.
And so I’m troubled today. I am deeply pleased to see such an awakening on matters of racial justice, but I’m also troubled. And I need to be. Because maybe it’s not that I forget about Juneteenth as much as it is that (to borrow from Ta Nehisi Coates’ running metaphor in Between the World and Me) I’ve never really even gotten out of bed, and I just keep rolling over and going back to sleep where I can exist in “the dream”.
The dream is safe. The dream is comfortable, and drives you into a deep, deep slumber. The dream is one from which you don’t want to wake. But it is just that: a dream. What is the dream? Well that’s the problem. As with any dream, while it’s nice, it’s also hazy, murky, hard to put into words, and, well, not real. It’s a dream.
This dream is evidenced by the way in which White America has largely been absent at best, but mostly not even aware of Juneteenth. We all know about the Civil War, what it was about, and that it ended slavery. We all (well, most anyway) agree that the system of slavery which the Civil War ended was bad and needed to end. Most people I know (which is a lot of white people) would agree that the liberating of the slaves is worth celebrating. I mean, isn’t America better because of it? So why don’t we celebrate it? Why are we only collectively interested now, 155 years later?
Some may say that we’re learning, and therefore we shouldn’t criticize this, because you shouldn’t criticize progress. But this is one of the most significant moments in all of American History, and it’s taken us 155 years to wake up to celebrating it? That’s not progress. Calling that progress would be like me resorting to dumping a two-gallon bucket of water on my daughter to wake her up and her get her out of bed when it’s 3:30 in the afternoon. That’s not progress. It’s a refusal to wake up.
It seems, though, that much of a White America may be actually be waking up. But I don’t know that it’s cause for celebration. At least it’s not for me. 155 years of silence is not moving me to celebration, but to wondering about repentance. Real repentance- the kind which is not about statements, billboards, and Twitter trends, but is about forging a new path, a entirely new way of being. I’m uneasy. It sounds good, but the implications are daunting. Necessary, but daunting. The bed is comfortable.
Repentance is not a momentary act or ritual. Those can be a helpful step toward repentance, but they are not repentance. They are apologies and an asking for forgiveness, but repentance is not proved in a momentary event, a public display of pageantry and litany, led by bishops. Nor is it proved in a blog post. No, that’s the kind of thing that the Prophet Amos tells us that God hates when it is not paired with justice rolling down like waters (Amos 5:21-25). No, repentance is proved through an ongoing sustained change in direction.
So here I am on another Juneteenth saying “oh yeah, that’s to celebrate the end of slavery.” Maybe I keep forgetting about it, because the truth is we white folx have never forged the new path, and we know it. We just keep paving over the old path so it looks nicer, but it’s still headed in the same direction. And so yesterday, I woke up a little bit, remembered, and named it, but if my history repeats itself today, I will roll over and go back to sleep. Back to the dream. The dream that works so well for me, but has been for indigenous people and people a color a long dark living nightmare.
White friends, I think it’s great for us to imagine appropriate ways to name and celebrate Juneteenth. But it’s June 20th now: We’ve work to do. Work not out there, but work within ourselves and within our own communities. Hard work. Unsexy work. How will we actually wake from our dream, get out of bed, recognize that we have overslept by a century and half, and begin the hard work of actually forging a new path, the hard work of repentance? Let’s start talking and wondering about that. And may it trouble us. May it, well, uh… keep us up at night.