By Beverly Dawn Whatley and Bruce Underwood Morrow
Poetry can capture an image or give voice to the voiceless. This new holiday may inspire a renaissance of spoken word that will illustrate the present and last for future generations. Like words and music, prose and verse unite to tell a story.
What does happen when a dream is deferred? The people forcibly removed from Africa and enslaved in the U.S. became a valuable and unnatural resource. They clung to a hope: They say they gon’ free us.
How might the inclusion of Juneteenth as an official holiday impact all Americans?
Review of Slavery
“Sails flashing to the wind like weapons, sharks following the moans, the fever and the dying; horror the corposant and compass rose.” – Robert Hayden, Middle Passage
Approximately ten million souls who survived The Middle Passage [two million died in transit] were transported from Africa to the New World. About 400,000 landed in North America between 1619 and January 1808 when a federal law made it illegal to import captive people into the United States.
What must it have been like after horrific months at sea to arrive at foreign shores, never to see home and family again? What must it have been like to toil under adverse conditions on the plantations? What must it have been like to see your loved ones sold off as property and to endure immeasurable suffering with no recourse except to survive?
As if forced labor and harsh conditions weren’t enough, there were the rumored atrocities about the skin of Africans being harvested and tanned for high quality leather products and African babies used to as “alligator bait”. If these practices happened…
Then, there were stories of being born free in Africa as told by the elders. What must that have been like to recall a time of dreams and hopes?
“Settin’ Us Free” excerpts – Bruce U. Morrow
When is that someone comin’
Who’s s’pose to be settin’ us free?
What? Who’s s’pose to be settin’ us free.
When? Anytime should be.
He been comin’ for a long time.
Where? I’ll see if he at the door now.
Fourth of July
“I, too, am America.” – Langston Hughes I, Too
Whose fireworks? July 4, 1776 may be Independence Day for those included in citizenship at the time, but Africans were still not Americans and were counted on the census rolls as property. One was listed by color, gender, and age for the purpose of clarifying the chattel for taxation. One might see the aged as house servants; youthful males as field workers; young females as breeding stock. A burst of fireworks tended by enslaved people to celebrate freedom, was and continued to be a mockery.
If he don’t put a hurry on,
We’s in for a permanent weep!
I hope he ain’t far off.
But? What is it? Well? Yes,
If he don’t come on time, I’se a feelin’
It’ll be too late—
Cause all my friends and loved ones
All they do is sit and wait…and WAIT!
“And men, whose sole crime was their hue, the impress of their Maker’s hand” – Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, The Slave Auction
“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…” The Emancipation Proclamation
January 1, 1863 was a second day of independence, yet a partial victory. There were exemptions retaining enslaved labor until the 13th Amendment and the end of the war.
Just look at our people.
Look at you. Lookin’!
Look at me. Waitin’!
Look at us. Hopin’!
Reconstruction to De-Construction
“Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me free.” Psalms 118:5
Free, but free to do what? Before the country was postwar, former slaves had their own “reconstruction” to envision new lives.
One option for young men was the frontier. Cattle herding was big business between 1860 and 1880, but railroads were insufficient. Cattle drives by expert cowhands on horseback were a necessity. Twenty-five percent of cowboys in the Wild West were Black men. Some became successful ranchers, and a few became lawmen. One is reputed to be the inspiration for The Lone Ranger.
Some enlisted into all Black regiments to fight on the Union side of the Civil War. Imagine former slaves now able to take aim at former slave owners. There was discrimination from the North and the South. Although there were protocols for taking prisoners, Black soldiers captured by Confederates were routinely killed.
A small step up from enslavement was the share-cropping system. The newly freed had no resources and no recollection of “the old country” to launch a mass exodus to Africa.
They attempted to reunite families, formed churches, and pursued education. They had expertise in farming and could now reap a bit of the profit from their labor. Small plots of land were rented and even owned by some. Special Field Order 15 was a type of reparation plan that parceled out the 400,000 acres confiscated from the Confederacy to the newly freed with promissory titles. The Army donated mules to the cause. This was a paradigm shift from being property to owning property. Together this became the “40 acres and a mule” promise. Full ownership never came. The land deal was rescinded after the death of President Lincoln, when President Johnson returned all lands to the South.
Say! So, just where is that someone
Who’s s’pose to be settin’ us free?
Remember what Grandma said?
Oh yeah. That’s right.
Christmas done passed!
History of Juneteenth
“I am the dream and the hope of the slave.” – Maya Angelou, Still I Rise
It was June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas. Due to the refusal to acknowledge the emancipation, Major General Gordon Granger with federal troops read General Order No. 3 “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” This news came thirty months late.
One hopes the dream deferred paled compared to dreams to come. They rose…
The New Holiday and Impact
Freedom Day. Jubilee Day. Liberation Day. In 1979, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth a holiday. Other states had smaller observances. In June 2020, Congress passed a resolution establishing Juneteenth as a national holiday, signed into law by President Biden June 17, 2021. The third time was the charm.
For non-Blacks it is a reminder that the promises of a nation were not inclusive of “all lives” and the struggle is ongoing. This is not to elicit guilt from the past. Instead, it is to craft a commitment to break the chains of the more subtle bondage of discrimination, marginalization, and microaggression for the future.
For Blacks it is bittersweet. It is a time to reflect on history in the rear-view mirror yet hope through the windshield. It is not a celebration of the late notice. It is about resilience and heritage. The date stands as a symbol of strength.
Two flags…two holidays…two days of celebration. Someday we will lift every voice and banner, singing two anthems with a sense of harmonious belonging.
In the meantime, still we rise. It’s our slice of poetic justice.
How might one celebrate this holiday in the home, school, workplace, or the church?
5 Juneteenth Celebration Ideas for the Entire Family (verywellfamily.com)
Four Ways to Celebrate Juneteenth with Students | Edutopia
Best Juneteenth Lessons and Activities | Tech & Learning (techlearning.com)
15 Juneteenth Celebration Ideas for Work in 2023 (teambuilding.com)
Discipleship Ministries | Juneteenth Day Worship Resources (umcdiscipleship.org)
About the Writers:
Beverly Dawn Whatley is an alumna of Eastern Michigan University and Chapman University of California. She is a literacy specialist and instructional coach for the state of Michigan. Work in documentary production and TV news instills a keen journalistic inquisitiveness in her writing. Beverly has tackled courageous topics published in B.L.A.C. magazine of Detroit, and regularly contributes to Heart and Soul. She has also written for The Crisis of the NAACP. (Other stories by Beverly Dawn Whatley)
Bruce Underwood Morrow is also an alum of Eastern Michigan and Howard University. He is a retired Michigan judge. The writers met as students in the EMU Black Theatre Company, where Mr. Morrow shared his talent for crafting some of the “spoken word” used in performances. (Excerpts from Setting Us Free – 1973) They found a mutual interest in activism. Bruce is still a staunch community advocate and champion for social justice