DeMisty D. Bellinger

Juneteenth: Now More Than Ever

Juneteenth is celebrated as the anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865, and it is also an occasion to speak out about injustices in our country.

 

The news is overwhelming and it all involves Donald Trump and his unchecked action. He insults our allies in Canada and Europe. He meets with the leader of North Korea without aides or prior negotiations. He adds tariffs to Chinese goods. But the most egregious thing that happens under the Trump Administration is the separation of children from their parents at the border.

Trump has argued that this practice—taking children from parents at the Southern borders and incarcerating them separately—is the Democrats’ fault. “Democrats forced that law on the nation,” Trump said. And if I’m not missing anything, he is blaming the Democrats for not acting on immigration reform, though the Democrats and some Republicans have tried to address immigration before this crisis.

Everyone knows that rending children from their parents at the borders is not policy created by Democratic leaders; prosecuting parents separately from their children is a Trump Administration policy mandated by Jeff Sessions (read here). In fact, there is no law that states children illegally entering into this country with their parents must be separated from their parents. This is Trump and AG Sessions’ zero-tolerance policy in full effect.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are ready to address this horrible policy. In the meantime, the Trump camp continues to justify the rending of families apart with rule to law (though it is not a law) and through scripture.

When reporters started sharing stories about what is happening to families at the border, many people cited similarities to The Handmaid’s Tale. Maybe because they’ve read the book lately, or maybe because it is now a popular series on Hulu, but whatever the reason, Atwood’s dystopia is offered as an example of such behavior and rightly so. My mind, however, like many other African Americans, went back to American slavery, especially when a nursing child was pulled from her mother’s breast at a detention center. How can I not think of a time when black babies were denied their mothers’ milk? How can I not think about the unjust and inhumane treatment of a people because they are deemed other or less than human?

AG Jeff Sessions went even farther in making parallels with some of the horrors of slavery with some of the horrors of the zero-tolerance policy: he cited scripture. In defense of this brutal policy, Sessions said, “… illegal entry into the United States is a crime—as it should be. Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” And he further states that these “… lawful processes … protect the weak and lawful.”

Sarah Sanders, too, uses the bible to justify, if not the law, the enforcement of the law: “I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is repeated throughout the Bible.”

Why did this trigger me? As many pundits—those paid for the work (like here) and those who are friends and followers on social media—said the same law was used to justify the Fugitive Slave Act, which made all those who abetted in enslaved persons’ escape criminals. I don’t think Sessions is ignorant to the prior use of this piece of scripture. I hate to think, but this feels like code speak for him, a gathering up of supporters of a law-and-order administration, which, according to scholar Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow, is “the new rhetoric for putting blacks in their place falls under the sterile call for ‘law and order.’” (See here and here.)

 


 

Earlier this spring, I was thinking about the abolition of slavery. Every Juneteenth, I imagine the wonder those enslaved Americans in Galveston, Texas, must have felt. Incredulous maybe, stunned, beautifully unmoored. They were free. Somewhat.

Juneteenth Day, a holiday celebrated in black communities across the United States, marks the emancipation of the last known enslaved black people in the United States (though there is evidence that slavery continued after 6/19/1865, and well into the twentieth century). Major General Gordon Granger traveled to Galveston, Texas, to tell the people that slavery was abolished. He read General Orders, No. 3, which stated:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, ‘all slaves are free.’ This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. … The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts, and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

I was thinking about Juneteenth well before June and before reports about separation of immigrant families was in the news, because there were many stories of white people calling the police on folks for existing while black.

Today, African Americans still do not enjoy the freedom our fellow white citizens do. For example, we cannot wait in a coffee shop for a friend or barbecue on public property without potential harassment (for more examples, scroll to the bottom of this article to see a list of white people calling cops on black or brown people).

We are disproportionately killed by police officers. Members of the NFL kneel during the singing of the national anthem in protest of police killings of black people and other people of color, a practice famously started by Colin Kaepernick. Our president, Donald Trump, complained about the peaceful protesters and said that they should be fired. In response, the NFL does not go as far as firing footballers, but will fine teams.

The NFL’s new policy of fining teams for kneeling during the national anthem is further evidence that black people are still not entirely free in this country. That the NFL, which makes their money off of black men’s backs (68% of the NFL’s roster are black men), can prevent its players from peacefully protesting through money and, implicitly, at the behest of the President of the United States is troubling for many reasons.

In what he may consider a concession, Donald Trump announced that members of the NFL can offer him names of people to be pardoned, a tone-deaf response to the reason for kneeling. Sure, give him names and hopefully get more people free with unfair or wrongful convictions, but address the brutal treatment police officers give people of color. Also, we cannot penalize black people for protesting peacefully.

Mostly, the NFL protests tell me that no matter how much money we can make, we as a people are still marginalized. But we don’t make much money. Our white counterpoints are worth nearly ten times more than us and in Boston, the nearest big city to my town, the median net worth of African Americans is eight dollars.

 


 

As of this writing, nearly 2,000 children have been separated from their families. Do we really have to take children from their mothers and fathers? Do we want to be a party to traumatizing young children?

I cannot see this ending anytime soon without action. So, contact your representatives to help unite these families and to create real immigration reform. Also, you can consider helping in other ways.

Finally, if our schools spent time teaching our children about American slavery and if we all learned about Juneteenth Day—a day as important as July 4—maybe we as a nation would be more sensitive to peculiar practices of our past. We should all be wary whenever someone quotes Romans 13 when enforcing unjust laws. Maybe if Juneteenth Day was a national holiday, we would celebrate the emancipation of those folks in Galveston, Texas, we’d think twice about calling the cops on black people who try to realize the freedoms they should have.

If you are interested in learning more about Juneteenth and the efforts to make it a national holiday, you can begin here and here.

 

DeMisty D. Bellinger

DeMisty D. Bellinger teaches creative writing, African-American studies, and women, gender, and sexuality studies at Fitchburg State University. She has an MFA from Southampton College and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in many places, including Necessary Fiction and Forklift, Ohio. DeMisty was a full fellow at the Vermont Studio Center in 2015. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and twin daughters.

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