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Waiting for the Word of Freedom

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I have to love Juneteenth. It's so ironic and subversive. But that raises the question: What is Juneteenth?

Briefly, Juneteenth celebrates African Americans' emancipation from slavery. But this is the weird, ironic and subversive part: The Emancipation Proclamation was issued January 1, 1863 and the Confederacy surrendered to end the Civil War on April 9, 1865. So what's June? And why "Teenth"? The Junteenth story is that word of the Confederate surrender didn't even reach the Texas frontier until sometime in the third week of June 1865. We could wax political about how the news of freedom somehow vanished on the way to Texas, but the irony I am really interested in is how slowly the news of freedom seems to travel. It makes the celebration such a great metaphor. The slaves had been "freed" and the war was over and President Lincoln was dead, but somehow people still didn't know.

Of course, we understand now -- on some sort of literal level -- that emancipation has come, but I always wonder how much we have dealt with that question in terms of our national psyche. It's one thing to have the date(s) of emancipation marked in our history books; it's quite another to think about whether we can truly think of what equality and freedom mean. If we could, why would we still struggle over race and difference? If we could accept liberation and its consequences, what the hell are we still fighting about? The news, or at least a full understanding of it, might still be traveling slowly.

Another thing I like about Juneteenth is that it's not a "real" holiday. The banks don't close. The mail still arrives. Most people don't even know it exists. If Juneteenth got the same amount of media coverage as Groundhog's Day, Americans might stand up against those who accuse us of being historical illiterates. I'm not advocating illiteracy, rather I'm suggesting that there is also something special about a "holiday" that gathers the knowing into a community, that allows them to celebrate more intimately, with a greater resolve to remember the past for its own significance, rather than as a something that engenders a day off work.

The Fourth of July inspires a lot of rhetoric, Juneteenth fellowship around an idea. There is, of course, a movement afoot in institutionalize Juneteenth, but I wonder if we might not be better off keeping it underground. I don't think that a greeting card would do the trick for this holiday, nor do I want to see the prepackaged decorations in the local drugstore. The traditional picnic with those in the know rings more true to me. There is always the danger that it might start to become a King Day kind of thing, a beautiful idea that seems to get further and further from the hard truth of race in America with every year.

Yet is also seems to me that a celebration of emancipation also needs to carry with it an embrace of how we can best use freedom. We have been emancipated from slavery; now what do we do with that? How many more emancipations, big and small, can we help achieve? The beauty of freedom is that is comes with the freedom to participate, to act, to advocate. We have the freedom to speak truth to power, and since emancipation is not necessarily synonymous with equality, we still need to work toward a vision of egalitarianism. If, as many historians tell us, it took a couple thousand Union troops to bring the message of emancipation to Texas, we should recognize that it takes an organized - though certainly not military -- force to realize the dream of real democracy. On Juneteenth we can consider what part of the force we want to belong to.

As, if we, we gather for Juneteenth 2009, we can simply ask ourselves this: Whom do we know who has slightly less freedom that we do? Then we can ask ourselves what we can do, big or small, publicly or privately, to aid in their emancipation. Whatever we decide, it would benefit all of us, if people didn't have to wait so long to hear of - and experience - their liberties.