“When Did You Hear?”
(Originally preached on June 19th, 2011 at First UU in Brooklyn as part of our annual celebration of Juneteenth.)
A joyous Juneteenth all! “June 18 is the day Union General Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves. On June 19, 1865, legend has it while standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, Granger read the contents of “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 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.””
What sounds to the modern ear as formal, perfunctory, and a bit horrifying – I couldn’t imagine working at the present home of my former master – was nonetheless cause for rejoicing in the streets. The discord in the language reminds us of how far we’ve come. Slavery had been formally at an end by January 1st of 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation officially went into effect, despite it’s September 22nd, 1862 issuing. It would take ten months, and 2000 more soldiers, to actually come to an end. This country would have such a long road ahead of it to realize Civil Rights, a road we are likely only about half-way down, but it would be enough to cause freedmen and women to rejoice in the streets. We’ll hear very distant echoes of this moment in our block party in less than an hour.
The end of slavery in the US is no less a cause for celebration now than it was 146 years ago. Our humanity took a step forward that day, and takes another step forward every day slavery is at an end in our hearts. It’ll take another step forward when the prison-industrial complex is torn down. It’ll take another step forward when we invest more in our schools than our prisons; when we invest more in opportunities and less in retribution. Our humanity will take another step forward when we offer living wages, and not merely minimum wages; when we recognize that the cost of living has increased since the start of the minimum wage in 1938, as has the proportion of rent to salary and cost of food to salary, but the minimum wage has not kept pace with the changing ratios of costs and spending, and of course, living.
I think of our poor, of our working class, of our freedmen and women from our prisons when I hear of school budget cuts, or hear of the exorbitant costs of an increasingly necessary college education. I remember how often race and poverty are intertwined in our country. Slavery may be at an end. Poverty today is not the same as slavery in the 1800s. Race dynamics have changed. The road may be open for so many, but I wonder if the toll to walk it is too high. I think of the irony of Juneteenth 1865 where Blacks were told, “… that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts” now that they are freed, whereas the military these days are sending recruiters routinely into poor or inner city neighborhoods asking for the exact opposite.
I am drawn back to General Grangers words, “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.” I’m not sure that that message has gone away. I’m not sure that our society has changed so radically, so drastically, that we’re not continuing to ask certain classes or certain cultures within our community to continue to do this to this day. We all have the freedom to do whatever we wish. We all have access to the American Dream. We can all improve our lives and our lots if we work hard enough. But we might not have access to good primary education unless we live in the right place. But we might not be able to goto college because the prices have gone so high. But we might not have reasonable access to an alternative path to prosperity not involving college because those kinds of jobs have been shipped out of our neighborhoods. But we might be more likely to end up in prison because of the randomness of location, birth, and community…. “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.”
Try to imagine living in Galveston, Texas in 1865. Imagine being a slave. You might be aware of the Civil War. You might know that it’s being won by one side or the other, or you might not. You might know that it’s nominally being fought over slavery, but probably not. It’s hard to imagine a bunch of white folks in the 1800’s risking their lives to ensure the freedom of a black slave-cast. It would be heroic and noble if that were the case; but that would be too simple a telling – one that we best reserve for our elementary schools alongside other fairy tales – if even there. Then the military arrives – a white military to be sure. And everything changes. Life may not get incredibly better or easier, but you now have a chance to direct your own fate.
Try to imagine this moment in your own life. At what time in your life were you cast down; out of control of your future; at your lowest low? When did you hear that it no longer had to be like that? Who told you? Or who helped you to see that another way was possible? Or has no one yet told you that it can be another way? Have you never felt cast down?
I don’t mean to suggest that our woes are the same as the plight of Blacks in the US in the 1800’s. I don’t mean to attempt to equate the bodily enslavement of a whole race of people, stolen violently from foreign lands or from their mothers and fathers on this soil of ours, with whatever temporary struggles we may currently face. I do mean though to help find a way to celebrate this day in more than a merely intellectual fashion. I have no idea what slavery was or is like. I have never been taken from my family, or my home. I have never been made to work against my will. I can intellectually imagine the horrors these represent. But our mind’s eye is only one part of understanding how tragic, how inhumane, slavery was and is. And it’s serious enough to command more from us. We need to appreciate it with our hearts and our souls. We need to appreciate it with our hearts and souls, my friends, because its repercussions are alive and well in our country today, and all the thinking and intellectual disdain we can muster for 146 years has not yet gone far enough.
It is my prayer that if we can come to understand its reality with our hearts and our souls, it may change us enough to make the difference we need to see in the world. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul.” The answer to the inheritance slavery has given us requires more longing in our souls than thoughts in our heads, than rational responses of a simple, dignified people. The steps forward in our humanity requirements movement – a movement internally – and words in our heads seem to me to be failing us there.
So, again, try to imagine this moment in your own life. That moment in your life where you felt cast down; out of control of your future; at your lowest low. It may not be the same thing, but its the best opening we have to understanding what slavery has woefully given us. When you reflect on systems in our country that foster wealth for some, and poverty for others; when you wonder why some have access to education and others don’t; when you remember the demographics of our prison system – consider all this in light of that moment in your own life when you felt cast down. That moment in your life – that moment is what we foster within our neighbors and our neighborhoods when we keep alive the heritage of slavery. Call it racism; call it classism; call it xenophobia; call it sexism or transphobia or homophobia. None of them are the same as slavery, but the practice of tying privilege to the few is well exercised and each get a glimpse of it’s affects. We could argue the hierarchies of oppressions to the end of days and it would only serve the prolonging of them.
What this world needs is more comprehension that leads to compassion. Attend to that moment when you felt truly downtrodden, and work diligently, everyday, not to create that feeling or experience for anyone else. Actively challenge those systems as they arise. I said before that it’s hard to imagine a bunch of white folks in the 1800’s risking their lives to ensure the freedom of a black slave-cast. In the intervening 146 years, can we say that that reality has meaningfully changed? Regardless of our background, what risks have we taken to live up to our highest ideals? What modern day slaveries go on unperturbed by our passing?
 Wikipedia’s text
 Corroborated with the website of the State of Texas and Wikipedia.
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