Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thoughts & reflections on Juneteenth June 19, 2021

A chair placed before a Stephen Somerstein photo offers a spot to contemplate. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2015.

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


6 Responses to “Thoughts & reflections on Juneteenth”

  1. Ruth Says:

    An important and deeply thoughtful post, Audrey. It is not easy to “stand in the gap” but we have to take on the challenge to do exactly that!

  2. Norma Says:

    I think back to 1971 when I found a job in a local furniture store where one of the sales people was a black man. I had no negative or other feelings about this man. After working with him for some time, I really gained a great respect for him. He was hard working, honest, and funny. I began seeing him as a human being. Not black or white. A few years later, my eldest daughter, while a senior in high school started dating a black boy. To make a long story short, they have been married for 47 years, Have 3 wonderful children, and have 7 grandchildren. He has been a wonderful son-in-law, and we love him dearly. I’m writing all this to express how I feel about people, regardless of skin color, because in my family of 5 offspring, three of them have spouses, and or grandchildren of other races. God is their father, as He is mine.

    • Norma, thank you for taking the time to share your personal story, how your family is just that, “your family,” whom you love dearly. And you’re right about God being the Father of all, no matter skin tone. I deeply appreciate your comment.

  3. It irks me so much when people outside the metro see what’s happening here as having nothing to do with them! Or when they rewrite the story without ever being here to see how things are. I don’t pretend to know how it is to live on a farm or in a small town, and I see greater Minnesota as an equally important segment of our state. That said, police brutality is a real issue, white privilege is a real issue, and better communication among all with genuine compassion for the experiences of those harmed by the very structure of this country’s institutions is an essential element for the changes that might make things more equal for all. Hot button for me this morning, I guess. The photo in your post is poignant.

    • I understand your frustration with those who view issues as “metro.” I don’t know how to change that thinking other than to, as you say, communicate. Via conversations. Via writing. Via educating and informing. And personalizing. One of my son-in-laws is biracial, which has given me even more insight. My second daughter has worked as a Spanish medical interpreter, which has also offered insights into immigration. And my grandchildren are growing up in a diverse neighborhood, which gives me hope because they see their little friends as just friends, no matter their skin tone.

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