Juneteenth: Keeping Faith with Our African American Brothers and Sisters

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On this Nineteenth of June 2019 African Americans around the United States commemorate the Abolition of slavery. It has been called Juneteenth since 1865, even though Lincoln proclaimed the end of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963. African Americans in Texas still toiled in bondage until June 19, 1865 when news of the Proclamation finally reached Texas, and, in some cases grudgingly, slaves were notified they were free at last. Perhaps now, as never before, do we need to remember who we are as Americans in all our varieties and ancestral origins. As hatred is spoken around and about the highest offices in the land, we must celebrate all that is good, kind and right within one another. Hatred cannot stand, and in the longer scheme of things, it will not. But for now, as hearts are wounded and rage engendered, let there be balm in Gilead.

A few weeks ago while I was in a medical office making a return appointment the African American clerk offered me June 19. My calendar noted the date was Juneteenth, and I had a conflict anyhow, so we found another day. I mentioned that this date was Juneteenth, and she looked at me blankly. I was prompted to ask if she knew what it was. When she said no I gave a feeble explanation. I asked if she was familiar with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black National Anthem, and she said she was. I had heard it on a radio broadcast, entranced, two years ago and that evening blogged about this amazing music here. I told her the song and the day were related. Evidently it wasn’t until Ralph Abernathy and Coretta Scott King incorporated Juneteenth into the Poor People’s March to Washington DC in 1968 that the tradition was carried home to communities around the nation. The Juneteenth World Wide website gives its detailed history.

Yesterday in The Forward, a Jewish periodical that goes back to 1897, Tema Smith in its Opinion section called for Jews to celebrate Juneteenth with our African American brethren and sisters. She writes:

Let the Jewish community take cues from black leaders who ask them to reckon with hard truths — truths like the fact that the wealth of America was built on the back of African slaves from whom our black community is largely descended. Truths like the fact that many Jews in pre-Civil War America were silent on slavery, and some did, in fact, own slaves. Truths like, while many in our Jewish community have been able to access reparations for our communal tragedy of the Holocaust, black Americans continue to fight for theirs.

Smith ends her powerful piece with these immortal words of Emma Lazarus, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”

And today as a Congressional Reparations hearing begins in Congress, I end this post with one of the most haunting and evocative anthems I have ever heard. A capella group Committed sings “Lift Every Voice and Sing”:

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