IT’S A MEMORABLE IMAGE of an empty chair placed before a photo in the exhibit, “Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail.” In 2015, I viewed the traveling exhibit that visually highlights the Civil Rights movement and the photography of Stephen Somerstein.
Now, six years later, the contemplative photo I framed and shot with my Canon EOS 20-D in the Flaten Art Museum at St. Olaf College connects to our new federal holiday, Juneteenth. June 19 commemorates the end of slavery—the date in 1865 when Union soldiers informed slaves in Galveston, Texas, that they were free. Two-plus years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all enslaved persons held in states that had seceded from the Union.
That strong visual of the empty chair before that Somerstein photo sparks within me the desire, the need, to look deep within myself, and then beyond myself. To learn. To begin to understand in some small way what it means to be Black in America. To read the history. To recognize how slavery affected generations of families. How the hurts and wrongs of yesterday remain.
The official declaration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday certainly prompts me to research, reflect and contemplate. But I hope this new national observance initiates community conversations that bring change in a nation reeling from racial issues and injustices. It truly takes each of us at a grassroots personal level to effect change.
Recently, I listened as an elderly white woman spouted angry words about George Floyd, murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. She claimed that Floyd was being portrayed as a “saint” when he was “nothing but a criminal.” I felt my blood pressure rising as she continued her rant about all the shootings in Minneapolis and how thankful she was that she didn’t live in the Cities. She missed the point of the protests—over police brutality, over racial injustices, over the needless death of a Black man (yes, one with a criminal record) while in police custody. I walked away. And maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe I should have stayed and tried to discuss this with her. But I knew my efforts would prove futile. She saw this all as a metro, not a rural, “problem.”
I disagree. We are all human. No matter where we live, we ought to care about how others are treated, whatever their skin tone. Perhaps today, Juneteenth, we can sit quietly for a bit, contemplate and reflect on life in America today. How can we improve this country, starting right in our own neighborhoods and communities? Within ourselves.
© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling