Today (June 17), President Biden signed the bill declaring Juneteenth (June 19) a National Holiday. Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Originating in Galveston, Texas, in 1865, then the most remote region of the Confederacy, Juneteenth commemorates the day the enslaved people of Texas finally learned they were free. At that time, June 19 became a day of celebration for Black people in Texas and slowly spread across the country as they migrated to other states.
For me, this is another opportunity for introspection of a belief I have incorporated into my consciousness over time. It is my fundamental idea that we could end all strife in the world today through a collective consciousness that we are all equal. It does not mean that we would have to all be the same color, the same gender, from the same socio-economic class, or any other means that we use to see ourselves as separate from one another. Instead, it means that we would embrace those differences because we acknowledge that we are all extensions of each other.
I was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, to parents who were also born and raised there. But as with most from our town, they rarely ventured more than 100 miles in any direction from home. That’s just part of the culture. Dad and Mom were salt of the earth people who I am confident went to their graves believing they did not have a racist bone in their bodies. And even though I don’t believe that to be entirely accurate, I think how they lived out their lives earned them the right to carry that belief.
La Crosse is a city of around 50,000 people. It sits along the Mississippi River about 140 miles south of the Minneapolis / St. Paul and about 180 miles west of Milwaukee, the state’s largest city. I’m sure the racial demographics have become more diverse since I was a kid, but even the latest census says La Crosse is 91.3% white. I make this point because it is hard to experience racial tension firsthand where there is essentially no racial diversity. But there was a time when I was a kid that I heard my Dad say, “Martin Luther King is a Communist.” I didn’t think much about it at the time because I was probably about ten years old. It just seemed odd to hear my Dad say something negative about anyone, so it stuck with me. This occasion was sometime in the mid-1960s when the Civil Rights movement was in full swing and on the heels of the McCarthy era in politics. (Incidentally, Joe McCarthy was a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin)
Over the next 35 years or so of his life, I don’t remember my Dad making any other overt comments about race and politics or even just race one way or the other. I don’t think he thought that much about race or racial tension because it was never a part of his day-to-day life. I believe my Dad was a fundamentally good man who formed his beliefs the way most of us do. Through the culture, education, and personal experience. And, of course, a piece of his experience in the 1960s was the media of that era, and three of the main topics of that time were the Viet Nam War, the Cold War, and Civil Rights.
I don’t remember many of the kids I went to high school with that were not a part of my immediate circle. But I remember one kid that was not because he stood out. In my 12 years of elementary and high school education, Bobby was the only Black kid in my school. And that was in a high school of about 1200 students. Bobby stood out because he was Black and kind of a trouble-maker. I didn’t really think much about Bobby because he wasn’t “one of my guys.” But he was part of my cousin Lisa’s circle.
My Mom remembered Bobby even as she began to slip (mentally) in her later years. She remembered him because of two things. First, he was Black, and he was friends with her niece. Second, in the course of some conversation, I remember her once saying that maybe Lisa would have been able to settle down more in high school had she not been running around with Bobby. I still remember the look on her face when I responded, “maybe he would have been able to settle down if he hadn’t been running around with her.” Like Dad, Mom was open-minded about most things, including race, but I believe her memory of Bobby was a product of her life experiences.
We all know what we know, and sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. (Yes, I made that sentence up myself.) I think the key is always to see the difference between my opinions and facts. Sometimes they are the same, and sometimes they are not. I remember once in early adulthood saying, “ I don’t owe Black people anything because I never had slaves.” That is a simple statement that I now understand requires a broad and complicated discussion. I need to continue to ask myself today: am I willing to have that conversation? If I see some things like Critical Race Theory or the Black Lives Matter movement gaining momentum and visibility, am I ready to be open-minded to what these things represent, even if they challenge some piece of my belief system? Or am I simply going to stand on my life experiences to this point and refuse to be open to new information?
Our son, Joshua, is an educator who has devoted his professional career to equity and diversity in our education system. His focus and drive are the direct results of his own experiences and desire to learn and then implement change. When I have conversations with him about systemic racism, I am sometimes overwhelmed with how much I don’t know or completely understand. But at the same time, if I desire to expand my knowledge and experience, it’s all good.
Juneteenth, to me, is about inclusion. It’s about recognizing that while we are all connected, we have each walked our own paths that have brought us to this moment in our lives. And then, it’s about being willing to try to understand what your path has been like, particularly if I will never fully be able to grasp the totality of your experiences. It’s about being willing to look directly at a time when our country allowed the enslavement of a people only because of the color of their skin. Then out of our fear, ignorance, and sometimes even blatant racism has generationally oppressed them out of antiquated ideas that have had limited opportunity to evolve.
I am delighted that we are having these discussions about equity. I know we have a long way to go. Galveston, Texas, was the birthplace of Juneteenth in 1865, but it took until 1980 for Texas to declare it a State Holiday. Even more unfortunate is the fact that Texas was the first state to do so. But we are evolving, and today the President signed the bill given to him by congress, declaring Juneteenth a National Holiday. It’s another step. Because in the end, whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, we are all in this world together. I believe my part is not so much to completely understand our differences, as much as to recognize they exist and to embrace them rather than be threatened by them.