Saturday was Juneteenth, the 156th anniversary of Union soldiers making their way to Galveston, Texas and Major General Gordon Granger informing thousands of enslaved people that they were finally freed from their bondage.
Two and a half years earlier, on January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared:
“I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.”
I was taught throughout my school years that Lincoln emancipated enslaved workers out of some sense of altruism/ brotherly love/ an understanding of right and wrong. In fact, his primary concern was with uniting the north and south in the midst of the Civil War.
Texas was the last state where African descended people learned that they were free and the first state to declare the day an official holiday. One June 15th, 2021 President Joseph Biden declared Juneteenth a national holiday.
If I sound less than enthusiastic about all of this it’s because I am painfully aware that many white people who had enslaved others for generations were financially compensated when they lost their “property.” And while a few African Americans did receive their promised 40 acres and a mule, the vast majority of them did not. I am also deeply pained by the knowledge that those enslaved workers who toiled away on plantations for an extra two + years were never given overtime. What does overtime mean when one is forced to give their labor away for free?
This fact means that although Black people were declared free they remained enslaved by their financial insolvency as well as laws that were enacted to keep them tied to their former enslavers’ land.
To help us understand the implications of this history Rev. angel Kyodo williams points us in the direction of an article that breaks down for us the human toll of enslavement in dollars and cents—the language of capitalism. The short version: “compare the average of $400 for an enslaved person to the average per capita income of $110. “The average real price of a slave was $23,000 (in 2016) Consequently, $400 in those days corresponds to nearly $195,000 in relative earnings today.” Upon investigation, the estimated $151,000 to $254,782 in various cases for reparations to every African American costs dollars — as much as $13 trillion, and makes sense.”
But this is not just about money.
It’s about recognizing Black humanity.
There has been and will continue to be backlash as there always is when truths that have been suppressed about the reality of America come to light. Consider, for example, current efforts to outlaw the teaching of Critical Race Theory at pubic institutions. And UNC’s Board of Regents declining to act on the tenure application of Pulitzer Prize winner, Nikole Hannah-Jones and developer of the 1619 Project.
Hannah-Jones was recruited by The University of North Carolina for her journalistic brilliance, but when the time came to provide her with the security that one seeks in academia it was suddenly determined that the absence of three letters at the end of her name made her candidacy suspect.
The message: We want your labor, but we do not value your humanity.
Tell me that the legacy of slavery is not alive and well.
The inevitability of backlash though, has me thinking about the zero-sum mentality and with it, the belief that someone’s gain is inevitably someone else’s loss. Many white people unfortunately, believe that the recognition and honoring of African American people’s countless contributions to this country’s evolution detracts from their right to claim their accomplishments. This is truly an unfortunate reality; one that ensures our demise as a country.
I believe the antidote to such an orientation lies, at least in part, in the practice of mudita, empathetic joy; in other words, in the Buddhist practice of feeling happy for others’ happiness; sharing in others’ joy. The need for competition and comparison then falls away and we are able to recognize “others’” fundamental desire to realize their potential and be happy as our own. Discarding the dualisms that give rise to othering in the first place, we would be happy for them as ourselves.
If you’re interested in learning more about mudita I would point you in the direction of Tuere Sala, lawyer turned mindfulness teacher, and someone who is committed to spreading the joy of rejoicing in others’ rejoicing as a liberatory practice.
I am grateful for the federal government’s recognition of Juneteenth. But I am also aware that making holidays does not change the quotidian experience of people. History has taught us this time and again.
At the same time I am aware that my liberation rests with me and my community, however I define it.
The time is upon us, if we haven’t already embarked on the journey, to ask ourselves, “Now what?”
Here are some resources to help: