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Happy (?) Juneteenth!

Happy (?) Juneteenth!


Happy Juneteenth!  Or, perhaps not so happy.

I needn’t offer up a comprehensive history of the event that inspired the holiday, but it is considered the culmination of the long-fought battle for the freedom of slaves.

June 19th, 1865.

Several years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the estimated 250,000 slaves in Texas were free (ish). But the celebration was premature. As Janis Joplin sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” It seems that there was plenty left to lose after all.

Many Black folks remained enslaved despite proclamations to the contrary and the ugly reality of Jim Crow was just around the corner. Imagine, if the image is not too trite, several Black runners approaching a finish line, pulling up a bit early to celebrate, and having a herd of white dudes knock them over and break the tape, as has always been the case.

I suppose it would be unnecessarily grim to suggest that life is not much better for Black Americans in 2024 than in 1867, but we are headed in that direction. Some esteemed leaders like Ron DeSantis enjoy pointing out the benefits that slavery offered. That enlightened view is what Florida’s lucky schoolchildren get to consider. The impact of such careless rhetoric on Black children is immeasurable.

Of course even the most regressive GOP legislator would stop short of ankle chains or neck shackles. But systematically depriving Black citizens of full democratic rights is well within the scope of their moral depravity. One such calculated effort to roll back rights culminated in the Supreme Court’s notorious decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 and the comparably damaging ruling in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee. Both decisions blunted the most effective measures enabled by the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Cheered by the shackles of justice being removed, white majority legislatures immediately passed more than 400 laws restricting voting rights, largely affecting Black citizens. Gerrymandering has become a GOP mainstay, with Black votes, if they’re possible at all, to be diluted to the point of electoral irrelevance. A clever way to say, “Well, you can vote, but it won’t really matter.” Just last month, the current Jim Crow Supreme Court reversed a South Carolina trial court finding that a vote-diluting scheme was unconstitutional.

Most of the MAGA fraudulent claims of a rigged 2020 election are essentially arguing that too many Black votes were counted. That they were rejected by every lawsuit is irrelevant. The white nationalists at the helm of the GOP are undeterred by the law. It is a matter of white Christian destiny, and that Trumps all legal or moral imperatives.

On the social and cultural level, the ground has similarly shifted. Affirmative action is dead because a group of well-funded, resentful white men orchestrated a decades long campaign to kill it. Even a majority of so-called liberals have been persuaded that it just WASN”T FAIR. We live in a meritocracy, they say, despite mountains of empirical evidence to the contrary.

I will not approach the DeSantis vulgarity, but for millions of Black Americans, mired in poverty, without adequate health care, relegated to deteriorating schools, suffering from police overreach (and too frequent overkill), subjected by cruel policy to disproportionate amounts of carcinogenic pollution, living in healthy-food deserts, and having their democratic rights restricted, the benefits of legal “freedom” are of meager solace.

The problem with Juneteenth, just as with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, is that it gives racists the opportunity to say, “See! It’s fine! ‘They’ even have a holiday!” And that’s the “good” ones. Check out a MAGA website to see the Juneteenth haters having a good rant.

It is sad and ironic that news of Willie Mays’s death came on Juneteenth. With great respect to the arguable GOAT, Mays is the kind of Black man conservatives could embrace. He entertained them and proved that anyone can make it in good ol’ America. And Mays was conveniently unthreatening, as he would not be drawn into racial justice work. He had every right to look the other way, I suppose, but I prefer athletes in the Colin Kaepernick tradition.

Happy Juneteenth anyway. I guess it’s better than nothing at all.


Steve Nelson
Steve Nelson is a retired educator, author, and newspaper columnist. He and his wife Wendy moved to Erie from Manhattan in 2017 to be near family. He was a serious violinist and athlete until a catastrophic mountain bike accident in 2020. He now specializes in gratitude and kindness.

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