AS A WHITE WOMAN and writer living in rural Minnesota, writing on the topic of Juneteenth isn’t easy or comfortable. Yet, it’s important for me to do so, to publicly recognize the federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans.
Why? Simply put, I care. I care that African Americans were treated with such disrespect, that they were “owned,” for no one should “own” anyone. Yet, these men, women and children were owned, used and abused by White slave owners who worked them, controlled them, imprisoned them, built our country’s early economy on their hardworking backs.
I don’t pretend to be any sort of expert on slavery. But the very thought of it shakes me to the core. I can only imagine the emotions felt by those whose ancestors worked in servitude—in cotton and tobacco fields, in homes, in barns, on vast plantations…
Taking time on one June day to reflect on the freeing of slaves seems the least I can do. June 19th marks the date in 1865 when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to ensure the freedom of all enslaved people.
Beyond reflecting on this date in history, I’ve tried to educate myself by reading, a skill most slaves were denied. Reading, whether stories written by reliable media, nonfiction or even fiction rooted in history, opens my mind to understanding. And with understanding comes compassion and an unwillingness to remain silent.
Too many times during my 60-plus years of life I’ve seen (think Confederate flags) and heard the animosities expressed toward people of color. And while this doesn’t apply specifically to Black people and slavery, I will speak up if someone starts bashing our local immigrant population with false claims and other unkind words. I fully recognize that, because my skin is colorless, my life is likely easier without preconceived ideas/prejudices/denied opportunities.
I appreciate that thoughts in this country are shifting, that we as a people are acknowledging past wrongs, that we’re trying. On the flip side, I see, too, hatred rising in ways I would never have imagined possible.
I admit that I grew up in a household where my father occasionally used the “n” word. It hurts to write that. The “n” word was part of his rural vocabulary, of the time, of growing up among others just like him. White. I grew up similarly, totally surrounded by those of Scandinavian, German, Polish, Irish and other descent, none with roots in Africa.
But I moved away, grew my knowledge and experiences, grew my exposure to new ideas and people and places. I’ve also gained insights into the challenges Blacks face from a biracial son-in-law. Today I live in a diverse neighborhood of Americans who are White, Latino, African…and I’m thankful for that. They carry, in their family histories, struggles and joys, the imprints of those who came before them. Today I honor those African Americans in Texas who 156 years ago first celebrated their freedom from slavery with “Jubilee Day” on June 19, 1866. And I honor all those slaves forced into lives not of their choosing, without freedom, but determined to be free.
© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling