OPINION: Reflections on Juneteenth: A 2020 context

Timothy Moore, emeritus professor and former president of BUS.

Timothy Moore, emeritus professor and former president of BUS.

Editor’s Note: KentWired invited E. Timothy Moore, emeritus professor of Pan-African studies at Kent State, to write a guest column about the importance of Juneteenth in the Black community, and to all communities.

In the 1976 movie called “Roots,” after the book by the late Alex Haley, an older American-born slave by the name of Fiddler asks the younger, more recently enslaved African known as Kunta Kinte, after several attempts to escape his bondage, “What ‘it like to be free, African?”

My question now, in 2020, is “What happens when you are free and you don’t know it?”

President Abraham Lincoln declared the abolition of slavery on January 1, 1863, in the Emancipation Proclamation, followed two years later by the 13th Amendment on January 31, 1865. These documents marked the end of the legalized institution of slavery in America. 

Now 155 years later, there are still some so-called White Americans who do not recognize or treat other so-called Black Americans, and many other so-called people of color, as equal citizens, deserving of the same rights and privileges that they enjoy. Herein lies some of the causes for the long-standing problem that is currently manifesting itself on the streets and in the cities throughout the world.

However, it turned out that in the small town of Galveston Island, Texas, black slaves were still living their lives of bondage and subjugation, unaware of the fact that they were actually free.

On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger and his band of Union soldiers (who had been traveling throughout the South for two years spreading the word) arrived at Galveston Island to tell the last remaining slaves in the United States that they were finally free.

This is the reason for the recognition of Juneteenth (the combination of June and nineteenth) and its implications need to be understood so that we apply what we can learn from the past experiences, to today’s circumstances which affect us all. 

In the late 1400’s, a necessity for labor by people who explored, conquered and sought to exploit and control the resources of other lands throughout the world, has led to many of the problems we still face today. Most of all, this created the need for our ancestors in Africa to become enslaved by them and brought to America as a source of free labor four centuries ago.

Labor is now understood more as employment in the current day. In the past, that free labor from our ancestors was provided for centuries, as was once said by Malcolm X, ”from can’t see in the morning to can’t see at night,” without pay and under abhorrent and oppressive living conditions. Many people reaped the economic, cultural and social benefits of this ‘Peculiar Institution’ while the African majority of the labor force did not. 

This established a tradition of privilege for Whites and non-privilege for Blacks, who were their Chattel. This non-privilege would ultimately be for the majority of people of color in America, including my ancestors and Latino, Native American and Asian populations. It also included some of the so-called poor-white populations as well. The simplest way to control us, was to deny access to education, reading, writing and subsequent thinking and/or calculating for oneself. The saying was, “Thinking for a slave is dangerous.”

The biggest lie at the foundation of all of this, is the centuries old notion that we are all different races. When the fact has been proven, that we are all part of one human race, period.  

Even though everyone commonly uses the terms of White, Black or African American, and other groups use various color or geo-culturally based nomenclatures, these will never negate this greater fact of our common humanity.

Kent State University took a chance in 1969, through the efforts of the Black United Students (BUS) in 1968, and all the people that supported the growth and development of what is now the Department of Pan African Studies and the Center of Pan African Culture. As a former student and then later as a professor, I was able to learn and to teach much about my own previously unknown history and culture that helped others to understand what we have experienced as African-Americans in this country. All students from different ethnicities and backgrounds have continued to take our courses and come away with a better understanding of other human families and experiences besides their own. This needs to continue to the extent that everyone should learn more about ourselves as well as everyone else, while here at Kent State. This will prepare them for the world that they will enter upon graduation, which will involve them with all types of people and all types of cultures, languages and experiences and all parts of the world.

The younger generations of all types of people today that are involved right now in all of these protests being seen in every city throughout the world are demonstrating a willingness to join hands and move us all toward a better world, because they don’t have the same biases and old fashioned ideas about humanity. They also don’t have the same problems with the differences among themselves and others, be they racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, religious, or any other distinction that many among the older generations have felt were so important to hold onto in the past.

People of all colors, ages and from every walk of life are collectively saying in the previous words of the Langston Hughes poem, Let America be America Again, that they also see why many people have said “it never was America to me,” and they are adding a new collective voice saying that it is time that America is America for everyone.

I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s America, knowing that a man named Patrick Henry, was praised for shouting, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” 

Liberty, Freedom and Independence are synonymous concepts.

We need to begin to ask ourselves, where does freedom originate? Is it in an emancipation proclamation? Is it in a 13th amendment to abolish slavery? Is it in any written document that may be found in the written laws of our society? 

It seems to me that freedom is something within that we all must recognize as an attitude, a belief and a practice, that we know is real and that we share with one another because it is an inalienable God given right, just as the Declaration of Independence states for each one of us.

It is interesting to note that currently throughout the country, places of employment are closing down, particularly JCPenney at the moment, along with others that have occurred in those that will occur in the possible near future based on this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Now the labor of everyone is being affected and their ability to provide for their families as well.

This affects us all and as we reflect on this, the current Black Lives Matter movement and its connected links to us all that are happening across the globe, are due to the way by which these recent deaths of black people have been occurring by the police force for the most part with no punishment or justice being evident. It behooves us to take a second and deeper look at the past in order to prevent another future that threatens the existence of any and all of us.

The wrongs placed upon humanity will always become expressed in the responses of humanity. 

Laws placed on the foundation of the American Constitution should be a true reflection of the minds and attitudes of the American people. Many of the laws thus far that were established have never been accepted in the attitudes and behaviors of many of the so-called Americans who have believed and practiced otherwise.

To those of you that are not African American but may wish to make changes in your own understanding, to reconsider subsequent attitudes and behaviors in the future, consider this. Start learning about other cultures beside your own that make up our American family. Everyone has had atrocities that have occurred within their cultural histories. We each have a dual responsibility to police and correct our own, when we see that they are doing wrong. It is also time for us to learn more about the wrongs that were done to other cultures as well and move toward making them right as best as possible, so that we can begin the healing process based on a better understanding of the causes. Then maybe real reconciliation can one day become the fruit of our efforts at knowing what happened and knowing what needs to happen for the welfare of everyone’s future in America.

So, on this day of Juneteenth recognition and celebration, take time to remember from whence we have come. Commit yourselves and your evolving educational growth toward the real and genuine equality, diversity and inclusion of every human being, and move us forward in making America what it deserves to be, for us and as a future example for the rest of the world.