by Kerry Zagarella
Happy Juneteenth seems like a strange acknowledgement. Perhaps Happy extremely belated Juneteenth. Juneteenth marks the day, June 19th 1865, when the news was finally announced in Galveston, Texas that the war had ended and slaves were free. That day came two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation Act in 1863. Many slave owners and Confederate sympathizers did not readily share the news of their freedom with enslaved people.
“Laura Smalley, freed from a plantation near Bellville, Texas, remembered in a 1941 interview that the man she referred to as “old master” came home from fighting in the Civil War and didn’t tell the people he enslaved what had happened. “Old Master didn’t tell, you know, they was free,” Smalley said. “I think now they say they worked them, six months after that. Six months. And turn them loose on the 19th of June.” (channel 5 NBCdfw)
The news of the Union’s victory took two additional years to get to some enslaved folks. This was no accident. This is, as today, people in power trying to keep oppressed people down. We as a country have not figured out how to have conversations about our history in the slave trade industry or the inherently racist systems that continue to exist today.
Educators across the country are being threatened for attempting to accurately teach history and social studies. African American courses are being outright banned. Teachers are being accused of having “agendas” when teaching to social studies state standards. “Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that the state would bar public schools from participating in a pilot of the College Board’s new AP course on African American Studies…his administration denounced the curriculum as “woke,” “contrary to Florida law” and an exercise in “indoctrination.” (Politico January 2023) Gov. DeSantis wants y’all sleepy, being “woke” is against the law.
The study of systemic racism and white privilege is considered “political”. When did truth and knowledge become political? When did “political” become bad? When did being aware, awake, or “woke” become bad? It hasn’t always been this way. The past decade has exposed the ever existent underbelly of hatred based on “the other” in our country.
Many Americans routinely ignore the beacon of light, Lady Liberty’s torch inviting the huddled masses. Instead we hear chants of “Build a Wall”. This wall was not intended for our northern light skinned Canadian neighbors. Though you could argue, that passage through the Canadian border resulted in the worst attack on American soil in history (9/11 Suspects entered easily from Canada: The Washington Post). It would seem if you followed the data that would be the border to “close”. But no. Donald Trump claimed that the Mexican Border was dangerous because they are sending over their rapists and drug dealers. Trump set the stage for violence, hatred and fear of “the other”. “They are not sending you. They are not sending you”, warns Trump. Trump also claimed allegiance with the Neo Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, VA claiming they were “fine people”, even after a white supremacist murdered 32 year old Heather Heyer, by driving a car into a crowd of people. “Jews will not replace us” a phrase shouted in the right wing march in Charlottesville, VA, along with many other racial slurs and ignorant, ugly, un-American Neo-Nazi rhetoric. One of these fine people, Christopher Cantwell, shared, “I’m trying to make myself more capable of violence. I’m here to spread ideas, talk in the hopes that somebody will come along and do that.” (The Guardian).
Today social media outlets are breeding grounds for the ignorant bravado of white supremacists. We can spot them, they are easy to recognize. There are many more Americans, who simply deny white privilege. Perhaps, they grew up white and poor and fought hard to “make it” and feel that anyone of any color can do that. I grew up white and poor in Southern Florida. I know first hand the heavy baggage of poverty, and still understand that my color affords me privilege. For one, I never have had to have “the talk” with my sons before they left the house. I would worry about speeding and getting in stupid kid trouble. I never had to worry that my white sons would get murdered walking home from the candy store, like 17 year old Trayvon Martin.
We have a responsibility as Americans to openly discuss and teach about racism. We also need to teach students how to have civil disagreements based on facts. Comprehensive Media Literacy instruction is critical so that kids can learn how to validate their information sources. We can not have two sets of facts, or as Kelly Anne Conway defends lying with the Orwellian statement “alternative facts”.
We will all make mistakes having these difficult conversations. We have not been taught how to talk about race and politics, instead we are actually taught not to talk about it. This wasn’t always the case. Popular tv shows in the 1970s approached controversial subjects head on. These shows were not considered fringe or extreme, they became popular to watch in every household. Shows like All in the Family. “All in the Family is often regarded in the United States as one of the greatest television series in history. The show soon became the most watched show in the United States…ranking number one in the yearly Nielson ratings from 1971-1976. The show broke ground in its depiction of issues previously considered unsuitable for a US network television comedy, such as, racism, antisemitism, infidelity, homosexuality, women’s liberation, rape, religion, miscarriages, abortion, breast cancer, Vietnam War, menopause, and impotence.” This show gave us a framework for having difficult conversations that are necessary for the strength of our country.
Most recently I have been watching the old Barney Miller show. This nostalgic choice has nothing to do with my age, or the fact that I did just purchase a very comfortable recliner. The show, sadly, is still relevant, much like All in the Family, the Barney Miller show portrayed current events and concerns.
Most recently I watched the November 3rd, 1978 episode: Barney Miller The Harris Incident. In this episode, African American detective Harris gets shot by two white policemen while he was investigating a crime scene. Investigating while black. The episode tries to explore the idea of what it means to be an ally. Harris, of course noticeably upset by the system that continues to put black men at risk, has difficulty absorbing the concern from his fellow detectives and Station captain. To Harris, his white colleagues can never feel what it is like to be a black man in America, and he is right. The show exposes that. The show highlights the conversation between his concerned colleagues and friends resulting in a mutual clarity. They realize that they can understand Harris’ anger, but can never feel the constant oppression and danger of systemic racism.
That episode aired in 1978, 45 years ago. These televised sitcom conversations were extremely popular and thought provoking. The show wasn’t considered “political”, it was another sitcom highlighting current events and concerns of the general public.
I do understand the frustration of “celebrating” freedom in light of the continued injustices of systemic oppression, though I do not personally feel what it is like everyday. The celebration of Juneteenth provides a well needed learning opportunity for our country. Why did it take two additional years to notify enslaved people that they were free? Why are Americans still flying the enemy flag of the confederacy?