We are approaching Juneteenth, our newest federal holiday. You have probably heard the story by now. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1963, declaring that “All persons held as slaves …are and henceforth shall be free.” But it only could be enforced in the few Confederate states controlled by Union troops. On June 19, 1865, two-and-a-half years later, General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, the last holdout state, and ordered slaveholders there to free their slaves. The 13th Amendment was passed later that year, eradicating slavery throughout the United States (except as a punishment for a crime), and it took another 156 years for Juneteenth to be declared a federal holiday.
While Juneteenth is a wonderful celebration of freedom, it is also a time for reflection, particularly for those of us who are white. To acknowledge that slavery ended is to acknowledge that it existed. This is extremely uncomfortable. So much so, that conservatives are banning books that tell this part of our country’s truth.
Of course, we who are alive today are not responsible for slavery. In fact, many of us (including me) came from countries where our own ancestors were persecuted. But those of us who have European heritage can assimilate and we take advantage of white privilege. In a culture that prioritizes light skin over dark, it is impossible not to. White privilege surrounds us like air.
How do we deal with collective guilt or shame? Do we pretend that it just didn’t happen? Do we blame the victim? Or, in our quiet moments, can we reflect and try to understand how our privilege may have hurt others? Is it possible to acknowledge that something actually happened without going directly to the blame? Without acknowledgment, how can we ever make it right?
I think about this on a personal level, too. How can we live with those parts of ourselves that cause us shame? Haven’t you ever had a time where you said, “I can’t believe I just said that?” And you wish you could have a magic clock that could go backward in time so you could have a do-over. I certainly have! All you can really do is try to acknowledge your mistakes and perhaps ask for forgiveness and try to make it right. Perhaps the hardest thing of all is to forgive yourself.
So on June 19th this year, let us acknowledge our messy past – and present – not for the purpose of placing blame, but to tell the truth. Whether personal or political, we start where we are.