Up North, Juneteenth was not really celebrated. Yes, I am a Northerner. Growing up in Chicago, I don’t remember ever celebrating Juneteenth. While I did learn about Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, I was totally unaware that it took TWO years for the message to reach Galveston, Texas. Galveston, by the way, is a place I have visited with my family on several occasions, yet we never talked about Juneteenth.
When we moved to Texas 12 years ago, that all changed. Juneteenth is celebrated in Texas. We taught our older children about the day; we even attended some celebrations. On the other hand, my youngest children are not aware of the holiday at all, not yet, and I am not sure I am ready to present it to them. I absolutely feel they should know about this part of history, but it’s complicated. It’s not as easy as just sitting down and telling them a bedtime story. My eight-year-old is bound to have ALL the questions. And he will ask them until he is satisfied.
Stories of Us
Growing up Black in America meant that I grew up with the knowledge of slavery. It was the one thing I could count on being taught about my history. In school, history books interjected small bits of slavery with the telling of the American story. The most heralding story of Harriet Tubman was repeated over and over. Even though it was meant to be a story of courage, at its core it was still a story about slavery.
There were also not many images of black people in mainstream media that didn’t include the hierarchy that persisted because of slavery. Black people, if they were not slaves, were servants. Other images were few and far between. It started improving as I got older, but still the message was poignantly clear.
It affected me deeply. All of these images created a feeling of shame in me. The short-sighted view of slavery through the eyes of others telling our story left very little to be proud of. The focus was not on the determination or the resilience of a people. It didn’t concentrate on the fact that black people were able to accomplish so much with limited resources. It never dawned on me that this wasn’t even what my own family looked like. The shame was never placed on those responsible for the atrocity. It always came across that slavery was a blemish on the enslaved. Ultimately, I felt like somehow black people were to blame.
I no longer feel a sense of shame, but it has taken time for my perspective to shift. My young mind was working through all that was being presented to it at school. But now that I have children, new thoughts and emotions have surfaced. My parents did not discuss much of our history with me; I was totally ignorant of my heritage. I can only assume they didn’t feel they needed to, but I think they were wrong.
We are a very different kind of parents. We talk to our children about EVERYTHING. Even when we know we are going to get the very exasperated “MOM!” or “DAD!” response. When I asked my daughter her thoughts about talking to my younger children about Juneteenth, she gave some insight into her thoughts on the matter: “One reason I don’t know if I want to have children is because I don’t want to have to destroy their innocence.” I have carried those words around with me for several days. What if that was my parents’ reservations? It is certainly a reservation of mine.
In teaching my children about Juneteenth, I have to reveal something to them that could shift their perspective. Slavery was ugly. It is a blemish on our society. I do not want my children growing up and having this limited perception of themselves. I also don’t want them to know that the world they live in isn’t as wonderful as they see. Right now they are only vaguely aware that bad things are happening and have happened. We have tried to give them information in small doses.
Giving them the history of slavery in our country sets before them a lens in which to see themselves. I wish the lens was broken. What makes it even harder is that the lens hasn’t gone away. Although I can tell them slavery is over, there are residual effects that still exist. Systems that continue from those times that still effect black and brown people. There is a lot to work through. I am still working through some of it!
“Once Upon A Time”
Admittedly, I don’t know how to tell the children’s version of this ugly story. This is hard! I want it to be the right time. And I want to do it the right way. More than anything, I want them to know that slavery is only part of our story. Before slavery, African people existed. Our cultures were rich and beautiful and vibrant. I want to make sure that the picture they receive is in relationship to the whole, and they are able to have a proper perspective.
There are some ways we are trying to prepare them: pointing out what black people have been able to accomplish since slavery has been huge. One thing we have started to do is to tell the story of our family. My grandfather was a Pullman porter. Meharry Medical College was founded just 11 years after the Civil War to educate African Americans in health sciences. I have a cousin who attended Meharry Medical College and became a cardiovascular surgeon. My father was one of the first black bus drivers in Chicago, Illinois.
One of my cousins has started researching our family tree. She has been able to trace our family back six generations. She gifted us with paperwork showing names and dates and locations. It has been a very emotional experience to share with my children.
Preparing for the Right Time
I have also started gathering books. I have found some really great children’s books on Juneteenth that I’m looking forward to reading with my family.
I am preparing for the day when we can all celebrate. Even if it’s not this year, I know that eventually Jubilee Day will be an important day to my whole family. And maybe we can really have a sense of the freedom and joy of those who received the exciting news on June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas.