Juneteenth Reminds Us America Is a Work in Progress

by | Jul 3, 2023 | Opinions & Commentary

Photo by Heather Mount

Juneteenth Reminds Us America Is a Work in Progress

by | Jul 3, 2023 | Opinions & Commentary

Photo by Heather Mount

Every human being here deserves to find joy and to be truly free in their shoes and in their skin. Are we there yet?

[An article about Juneteeth? Didn’t we just “do” that holiday last month? The date has passed, true. But the fact of the abuse of freedom needs to be kept front of mind as we approach another national holiday about freedom. We are publishing this and another piece today for this express purpose—one reverent and the other, not so much.]

As children, most of us remember being on many of those seemingly endless road trips, in the back seat of a car or maybe from the less desirable third row of minivan seats (or if you were part of a really big family, way back in the 1900s: from the rear facing, unsecured crawl space in the bowels of a brown paneled station wagon). Frustrated and impatient, we all found ourselves shouting the refrain incessantly to the grownups behind the wheel: “Are we there yet?”

The reply invariably came: “Not yet.”

Years later, in one of those circle of life experiences many of us have found ourselves as adults on some of those never-ending journeys (which, it turns out, don’t feel any quicker to grownups), now sitting behind the wheel and being bombarded with the pleas of the tiny captives behind us: “Are we there yet?”

We would provide the update: “Not yet.”

It never gets any easier for human beings to wait for arrival to somewhere we really want to be. Impatience in advance of a destination is still universal. Yeah, they say that life is about the journey, not the destination—but that’s difficult to accept while you’re stuck in bumper to bumper traffic with a low fuel gauge and a full bladder.

In the collective journey we are on as a nation: the journey toward equity, the journey toward equality, the journey toward a fully accessible America, people of faith, morality, and conscience here are impatiently looking around asking the question “Are we there yet?”

Sadly, the answer is and has been—”not yet.”

Liberation is a long road, made longer by those captivity benefits.

Juneteenth Marks the day on June 19th, 1865, when Federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to declare the emancipation of all Americans, of every slave being freed. It shouldn’t even have been necessary. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued two-and-a-half years earlier by President Lincoln, (freedom under the law had arrived), but because of the geographic fractures created by the war, many strongholds of institutionalized racism existed. Texas was the final area of this nation to surrender to this particular bend of the arc of the moral universe toward racial justice—and someone had to forcefully bring them the news they’d refused to come to terms with: the war was over.

Enslaved black people had been free for nearly three years, but had this news withheld from them by a group of white Americans who did not want them to know that they were free and did not want them to be free; people for whom the recognized inherent worth of all human beings was not a destination they wanted us to collectively reach—and so they fought to prevent progress and suspend national renovation.

Today, we might look at the state of Texas and we wonder if any time has actually passed, if the news of freedom made it there to some folks to begin with. 160 years after the Emancipation proclamation, there are still people there and in Florida and in Iowa and in Tennessee and all over this country, who would wish they could (in their words) “make American great again,” that they could rewind the clock of national progress further back to a place where black people’s emancipation was not a reality, where the rights to live freely and determine their destination and have their voice heard were a long way off.

We can look at the news on any particular day here to see how far we are from our collective arrival:

  • We see a group of people seeking to keep teachers from telling the true story of this nation’s systemic racism to our children.
  • We see a political party gerrymandering districts and suppressing votes to make the voices of people of color irrelevant.
  • We see video of citizens berating black people sitting in coffee shops and at local parks.
  • We watch George Floyd being suffocated by police officers on a Minneapolis Street, and Jordan Neely on a NYC subway.
  • We see the social media posts of friends and the offhand remarks of coworkers and the holiday monologues of family members.
  • White supremacy is still making sure that black liberation is not complete. The powerful are still trying to make certain more people stay powerless under the law and in their own heads—and so we cannot fall asleep now.

On this collective journey toward a just and fair nation, one where the universal worth of every human being is honored, the bad news is that we are not there yet. We have not arrived at a place without racism, without bigotry, without nationalism, without homophobia, without misogyny.

The worse news, is that as long as human beings in their flaws and failings and fears and false stories, exist—we will never quite be there. There will always be a part of humanity that sees in a threat in difference, that defaults to competition and not collaboration.

But the good news (and it is very good news), is that unlike our frustrating car trips as children, we are not passive passengers on this trip. We are not helplessly shouting from places where we are powerless prisoners, asking someone else to tell us where we are and to determine our path and to get us where we want to go. We are at the wheel of our existence.

Each of us have proximity and agency and the expansive space of our choices. We have our individual wills and our circles of influence and our daily decisions and our social media profiles and we can toward drive toward better.

Not only that, but we have our collective voices and our shared resources and our chosen communities to move our nation toward a place where more people experience the reality of their liberation.

Every human being here deserves to find joy and to be truly free in their shoes and in their skin.

Are we there yet?

Republished with permission from John Pavlovitz.

John Pavlovitz

John Pavlovitz

John Pavlovitz is a writer, pastor, and activist from Wake Forest, North Carolina. A 25-year veteran in the trenches of local church ministry, John is committed to equality, diversity, and justice—both inside and outside faith communities. When not actively working for a more compassionate planet, John enjoys spending time with his family, exercising, cooking, and having time in nature. He is the author of A Bigger Table, Hope and Other Superpowers, Low, and Stuff That Needs to Be Said.

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