I recently ran across a YouTube video of Dr Shennette Garrett-Scott, Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at Ole Miss University, providing an oral history of Juneteenth aka Emancipation Day aka Black Independence Day. During this presentation Dr Garett-Scott provided many nuggets from which to gleam from.
I want to lift up a memory that she gave about a Baptist church in Galveston Texas near the Ashton Villa which was the headquarters of the Confederate States of America. It is also the place where General Gordon Granger would issue General Order №3, which told the state of Texas that slavery had been abolished. Mind you this came 2 ½ years after the Emancipation Proclamation which abolished slavery in the confederate states. Dr. Garret-Scott shared the memory of a children-led processional that started at the Baptist church, and from there went in a circle to the school, to the cemetery, and then back to the church. She informs us that this was done as a symbolic reuniting of the freed, living contemporaneously with our enslaved ancestors.
This was a symbolic gesture, but I think that there is more that can be lifted up here. There were some other symbols that need not go unnoticed. I believe that this illustration of celebration and commemoration also leaves us with a call of reflection and appreciation. This illustration also provides us the road map to liberation.
First, please notice that the children are moving. They are not standing around. Beloved, our ancestors did not stand around either. They were not waiting on some piece of paper to be read to hear the sound of freedom. It was Frederick Douglass who said, “I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” Of the 3.5 million enslaved 500 to 800k of them fled and fought with the union army or they formed societies. They were not waiting on someone to work it out for them — no, they went to work. They participated in their own liberation.
“I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” -Frederick Douglass
They kept going. Our ancestors understood what Coretta Scott King understood, “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.” And while many of our ancestors died in captivity, they continued to fight, generations coming up behind them are revisiting them in a better condition. Can we just pause real quick and be grateful for our ancestors? It is the fight of our ancestors that runs through our veins. It is the fight of our ancestors that we benefit from now. It is the fight of our ancestors that reminds us of the work that remains and that we are the only ones who can do this work.
They moved in a circle because when you move in a circle, you leave no one behind. We can ill afford to leave anyone behind. Our ancestors understood liberation as a collective effort. They understood, until we’re all free, none of us are truly free, or as Mariam Kaba says it, “we do this till we free us”
Pay attention to where they visited. They went from the church to the school to the cemetery and back to the church. They were remembering their journey. Our African ancestors understood that we are spiritual creatures and that our spirit is connected in community. In life we are born, we learn, we progress, we mourn, we remember, we return. Now, I want to lift up the fact that we are spirits. This procession is making us fully aware that we are spirit. It is also screaming at us in this moment that because you are spirit, you are powerful. The great theologian Howard Thurman said, “Do not be silent; there is no limit to the power that may be released through you.” This is where I’d like to land this plane.
“Do not be silent; there is no limit to the power that may be released through you.” -Rev Dr Howard Thurman
General Order №4 not only told the oppressed and oppressors that those who were enslaved were no longer enslaved. It also told those that were now listed as free that they had to fend for themselves. The order told them that they were not going to have an opportunity to rest or to expect reparations. They were to go back to their oppressors and try to work something out. In essence, you’re on your own.
Before returning to their place of origin, they visited the school and cemetery. I have to admit that I struggled with this. Their first stop is the school, and their second stop is the graveyard. Then, Spirit spoke and revealed to me what was really happening here. These kids were not just celebrating and commemorating superficially, they were preparing for battle. They understood what the Apostle Paul said, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” They went by the school because it symbolized the place to learn and strategize to keep fighting.
They then went to the cemetery. My first mind wanted to celebrate that the children would go to the grave to show off their newly acknowledged freedom. However, I would like to challenge us to look deeper. It made no sense for the children to go by the grave, unless instead of them rubbing their newfound freedom in the face of their ancestors, they were making a vow to their ancestors to continue the fight for freedom for many generations to come. I’d like to think that they were making it up in their mind just as Harriet Tubman made it up in her mind when she said, “I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, and when the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me.”
They were saying, “Before we’ll be a slave, we’ll be buried in our grave and go home with the Lord and be free.”
This is the attitude that we must have today. We have to have an attitude that we will keep going, we won’t leave anyone behind, we will learn all we can for this fight, and we will be determined to fight for our collective freedom.
As long as injustice exists in our communities, we will continue to fight.
As long as we are continuing to die at the hands of those who are sworn to protect and serve, we will continue to fight.
As long as we are paying over 20% of our income to our power bills, we will continue to fight.
As long as polluting facilities disproportionately sitting in our communities are killing us, and making us sick, we will continue to fight.
As long as we are not given the same funding for our institutions that historically white-led and white servicing organizations are given for theirs, we will continue to fight.
We will continue to fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Last thing, Dr Garrett-Scott said that they celebrated with joy. Listen, whether you are celebrating, remembering, or preparing, do it with joy. Our Black joy is our super power. In the church, Mother would sing, “This joy I have, the world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away.” There is another song that we like to sing, “I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around. I’m going to keep on walking, keep on talking, marching up to freedom land.” Beloved, while we’re marching and fighting, maintain your joy.
*Thank you to Anthony Rodgers-Wright for editing. Thank you to Rev Dr Brooks Berendt for helping me to think through this.