JUNETEENTH IS THE REAL INDEPENDENCE DAY
(Artwork is by Jennifer Dolan)
I see Juneteenth as the real Independence Day, but the promise of freedom from when emancipation was declared has not been kept. We need to do something to honor that promise. This is an opportunity to do that.
I went on a cross country train trip in 2015. My significant other and I had breakfast with two fascinating older men; one black, one white, and both very progressive. The black gentleman talked about how his daughter was organizing the first Juneteenth celebration in the small town where she lived.
I expressed how wonderful I thought that was, and mentioned that this date really marks the beginning of civil rights in the U.S., and should be celebrated everywhere in the U.S. The man was impressed that a white girl knew about the holiday. He said that most white people seem clueless as to what June 19th commemorates. I knew that to be true, but I really wish it wasn’t that way.
When some prison sentences were commuted to the Wood County jail a few years ago, Wisconsin Rapids residents saw black families move into the city. These are families who just want to remain close to loved ones, but the way some people here would talk about them, you’d think they were all criminals. I heard people attribute drug dealing and theft on the west side of town to the new residents, even though there had been these kind of crimes on the west side for decades.
There were no efforts to welcome the new residents, or make them feel comfortable. I so badly wanted to do something, but with my health declining, I was in no condition to organize an event, and how do you begin that conversation? Apologizing on behalf of all white people is just awkward, and doesn’t exactly say, “welcome.” And what if I were to say “Wisconsin Rapids welcomes you?” I know that would be a bit disingenuous.
Yesterday, as I was running errands, I noticed a black man walking on Lincoln Street. Our eyes met, and I saw the fear in the man’s eyes. As a white woman, black men have reason to fear me because women who look like me have exerted their white privilege to sic law enforcement on black men. This man was very fit; in much better physical condition than I am, yet he was afraid of me because white women don’t fight fair. I saw another black man out walking on my return home; the same fear in his eyes. It was heartbreaking.
Every year, I set out to create art for Juneteenth at the end of my driveway. I love producing chalk art on the pavement. I live in the downtown area where there is a lot of foot traffic, and if I can draw something that brightens someone’s day, raises awareness for an issue, or gets someone to think, I feel good. But each year, I find that I cannot decide what that art should be. There are things I want to say… maybe too many things. I know that one drawing cannot convey all of that. Then I ask myself if this is cultural appropriation. But why should I feel that way about a holiday commemorating independence? Just because so many people who look like me don’t acknowledge it? This year, I cannot let excuses get in the way. I will celebrate Juneteenth Day.