State funded public schools in rural south Louisiana didn’t teach students attending those schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s anything about the significance of June 19th. I learned of Juneteenth after I left our tiny home dwarfed by the then-abandoned antebellum home across the two lane highway. Acre upon acre of sugar cane fields and the sugar mill that was the heartbeat of the small community clung to the plantation past as though time stood still.
I was in Houston, Texas in 1973 when I was first educated about Juneteenth. I’d left the tiny St. Mary Parish community where I was raised the day after graduating from high school. Aside from family, there was nothing there for me. I didn’t want to work the fields or the shipyards. I wanted to move away from the place where slave quarters still existed. So I joined my older siblings, a brother and a sister, in Houston. Under their watchful eyes I made the transition from country boy to a young man with promise.
More than 45 years after my first Juneteenth celebration, June 19, 2019, seems so unbelievable to me. As I watched coverage of reparation hearings on the Hill, I wondered if America will ever get it right. Few seem to understand that the conversation isn’t about the government handing out checks to make up for the forty acres and a mule promised all those years ago.
Leaders like Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell still believe that central to the conversation this country must have is the concept that no one currently alive is responsible for slavery. That belief, carried forward, is a proffer that no American alive is a beneficiary of the horrors inflicted upon a people to make this country what it is today. It’s insulting to hear Senator McConnell say that the country is, in essence, made whole because a black man has been elected president of the United States or that passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts balances the scales. We should not forget that Senator McConnell is the same man that has worked tirelessly to impede, and then reverse, the former president’s every effort.
America must have a conversation that begins with acceptance of the fact that there are patterns of income and wealth inequalities, health disparities, incarceration and differences in academic achievement that are directly linked to the vestiges of slavery. Those patterns cross generational lines and negate any argument that the responsibity for slavery rests solely with Americans who have long since died. Inequality, not biology, is how America has created and perpetuated racial differences. The necessary conversation is not about the color of our skin. It’s about opportunity. A failure to recognize and address these inequalities and disparities furthers the belief that these conditions are natural and just a part of the human experience.
The facts are simple. What we call racism and inequality today is a product of our economic, social, and political history. It’s not a natural state of affairs as McConnell and so many others would have us believe. We must see this human condition for what it is – Americans deserve better.
Surely we shouldn’t believe that reparation is just about a check. It’s time we all admit that this country must repair the damage caused by so many years of slavery. If we can call slavery the country’s “original sin” then it only follows that we should call the economic, social and political wounds that resulted from this sin conditions in need of immediate repair.