Every Juneteenth has me thinking about life and the unknown and the experience of those who lived two and a half years enslaved, denied the news that the Civil War was over and the North had won.
We don’t always know what moment we are living in. Or what lies on the other side of now.
We certainly don’t know what we do not know. In this 400th year of colonial American slave capitalism, we don’t know, for example, what it is to live equal and free.
We do know what it is to be haunted by lost life and lost possibilities, and if we didn’t know that before, many of us learned about loss from these months of Covid-19.
We know what it’s like to live haunted. These past few weeks, my ghosts have been hovering Ghosts of people who died prematurely to cruelty and cancer and lack of care and violence and to the bitter work of resilience (not revenge) and to justice struggles that flat wore them out.
I’m talking about people, mostly women of color, whose chances for survival were shrunk by white men mostly (but not exclusively) and by systems that prized only whiteness and maleness and wealth.
This Juneteenth, I’m wondering, are we living in the part of human history where a world-wide flu (blamed on foreigners) is followed by a reckoning and reconstruction? Or the one where a world-wide flu (blamed on foreigners) is followed by white terror?
What lives on the other side of this moment: Tulsa 1921 or somewhere we haven’t built yet?
Can we even imagine what a future looks like that looks different from our past?
We are seeing some new things. In his Sermon last Sunday before an empty National Cathedral—itself a new thing—Rev. Dr. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign called for a mass lamentation for the great unlamented pile of American death.
Different, we are learning to lament in our masks.
In her 1980 essay Civil Wars, June Jordan calls us to be unruly: “In the context of tragedy, all polite behavior is a form of self-denial.” All around the world today, people are rebelling rudely, waging nonviolent, disobedient, impolite war on racism with hand sanitizer—defying public order while protecting public health.
Now the truth telling: James Baldwin called on Americans, especially white Americans, to claim our humanity by giving up our myths and lies. Only that will “destroy our attitudes and give us back our personalities,” he wrote.
So what comes next? The moment in which we all get human and equal and free, or another who-knows-how-long delay? Which?