Anali reminds me that today is Juneteenth. Now an official holiday in her home town of Boston, Juneteenth commemorates the day “in 1865 when the last slaves learned they were free.”
Took awhile to get word out. No Internet back then.
Growing up west of the Mississippi one doesn’t see a whole lot of evidence of our history of slavery in the landscape. (We’ll save the discussion of the Reservation System for another time.) We western kids are the children of Manifest Destiny – the offspring of those who slogged out this way, early in wagons or late on airplanes, to build something bigger, something more, something new.
I wasn’t aware of it growing up – that thread of entrepreneurship that drives so much doing out West. It was all I ever knew. But I feel the absence of it, having inched East to Chicago, which boomed once and still gets along in its own old school way -- but the spirit’s different here: it’s not as raw. It’s not as eager. It’s a little bit tired around the edges. (Although maybe I'm just hanging out in the wrong neighborhoods.)
Traveling down to Gloucester, Virginia last summer for a friend’s funeral I was struck by something entirely different -- the sense that development around there stopped mid-stream, some time a long time ago. I don’t know how persistent that sense is across the South, but in the pocket I visited there was the sense of a boom interrupted – lot of activity, building, and commerce that seized up and slowed at a particular point in time.
I chalked it up to the end of slavery. I could be entirely wrong. But right or wrong, the realization mattered to me then because it brought home the economic face of enslavement: we built this country on the backs of people who were not compensated for, and did not consent to engage in, that labor.
Growing up as a white kid in America I learned about slavery, of course, but always as something distant and far away and highly emotionally charged. In school there was only the briefest conversation about the economic benefits of slavery -- and when it was touched upon, it was “the South” that reaped those benefits. As if the Northern economy didn’t profit at all from bloody hands. The story of slavery was framed simplistically as good versus evil and then settled, heroically, by our man Abe.
Human rights entered into the conversation as something innate and understood – but never dissected, and never connected to the larger, global conversation about human rights, that continues even today.
And never, in the course of my secondary school education, was the story of slavery dovetailed with the story of labor rights. Aren’t they different facets of the same struggle?
My point: the story of slavery in America has been, in my experience, segregated from so much of our larger story. As if, because it belongs through ancestry to people of African descent, that it doesn’t belong to the rest of us, doesn’t impact the story of our 40 hour working week, the right to choose how we will apply our labors and earn our keep and feed our families and find our fulfillment.
I’m still looking for the thing that I want to do with my life. I’m still searching for work that is more calling than calling card – and the fact that I have the cheek to think I can claim something “fulfilling” for my work, is because I’m an American, and because it’s been drilled into me since day one that we make our way in this world through the work we do.
Work we choose. Work that matters. Work that we have a right to be compensated for. A right that we have no right to deny to anyone.
Slavery is my history too, and it’s what I define myself against. It's what I never want for myself; it's what I never want to inflict on anyone else.
Each of us is free to fly or free to f*ck it up all on our own. Because we're free.
Happy Juneteenth. Get the word out.
p.s. As of 2004, 27 million people remained enslaved against their will. Not sure what the numbers are today -- not optimistic that they're any better.