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The ugly truth at the center of Juneteenth

Texas slave owners profited from their enslaved people not finding out the truth

The Senate’s decision to move forward with making Juneteenth a national holiday struck a dissonant chord with me. While I am happy to see this historic day being recognized, I wonder about the implications of this day of memoriam for the enslaved becoming the next greatest internet trend.

As a Black performance poet in Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, these humid summer months not only offer me time to gather with my family around slow-roasted brisket and watch my friends cannonball in crystal-clear lakes to avoid the heat, but they provide a guaranteed phone call to perform some socially-stirring poem at any one of the dozens of Juneteenth celebrations that emerge around the greater Texas region. I take a certain pride in coming together with my community to celebrate being Black and to acknowledge the types of oppression our ancestors overcame. We usually gather at a community center, church or neighborhood park.

But as the swell of interest around Juneteenth has grown this year, this intimate look at Black survival has shifted to street vendors with Juneteenth T-shirts and keychains of Black fists. There seems to be a more diverse crowd than ever before interested in taking a bit of Black culture home with them. And while I am excited by the thought of what meaningful conversations this could open up, the meaning of the day seems to be slipping farther and farther out of focus.

I knew nothing of Juneteenth before moving from California to Texas more than a decade ago. Most people outside of the Lone Star State are just being introduced to this holiday as part of the trendy interest in “the Black experience” that followed the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. It is the same interest that pushed books such as White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. While this new “wokeness” is prompting some to rush and buy kente cloth or Africa-shaped earrings to celebrate the last of the enslaved gaining their freedom, there is an ugly truth that must not be forgotten in the process.

If we are not careful, our half-hearted attempts to commemorate freedom will ignore that we are still fighting for it, every day.

In 1865, two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the last of the enslaved were being beaten and tortured in Galveston, Texas – just 35 minutes from where I live. These people were legally free but unable to leave the plantations that held them captive. Some historians have tried to explain the delay by referring to a messenger who was carrying the news being killed in transit. But with multiple avenues for news to travel, even back then, a more likely explanation was that the landowners in the South refused to give up their free labor. For them, this was part of a last stand to hold onto slavery as long as possible. There was little way to enforce an executive order that was so broad in any quick amount of time.

Despite rumors and rumblings among the enslaved about their freedom, the landowners still held the guns and the power. They simply fed the enslaved lies that the Emancipation Proclamation was a myth or that it didn’t apply to them, betting on their inability to read and decipher the truth for themselves. I often wonder what kind of people would stand by as their entire region squeezed every ounce of blood and sweat out of free people for cotton, tobacco, profit and power, as if doing so would grant them some historic rewrite to the end of the war. And in so many ways, Texas is still holding on to that approach.

I see it every time I drive out of town for a performance. Sculptor David Adickes’ 76-foot statue of a salt-white Stephen F. Austin looms over Highway 288. Austin, the pro-slavery “Father of Texas,” joins many other emblems of the Confederate uprising around the South. The state capital of Texas even brandishes a Confederate flag carved into the obelisk of Hood’s Texas Brigade monument that stands outside. More than markers of history, these relics are constant reminders that the system that supported enslaving free people is still alive and well.

While headed to Austin one evening for a reading, the threat drew even closer. My husband and I were just crossing the outskirts of Houston when we saw something dangling from a bridge in the distance. I leaned into the windshield attempting to make out the moving blur that was slowly coming into focus. As we got closer, we quickly realized that it was an enormous Confederate flag being lowered by a white man in a red baseball cap. It was then that we realized that we were only miles away from where Sandra Bland was found dangling in a jail cell. This was less than 50 miles from where a construction crew unearthed the Sugar Land 95 and the chains that held their Black bodies in bondage during a convict leasing program in the late 1800s. This was also 30 minutes from the place Floyd called home.

And while it would be easy to rest all of this history on Texas’ shoulders, if we learned nothing from last summer, we learned there is no place in this country that is safe for Black people. Living in America requires that we don’t forget that the underpinnings of racism and the systems that supported enslaving people are always nearby, and they may always be. That is a fact that does not disappear because it is June.

With legislative efforts to remove critical race theory from classrooms gaining steam and police reform making few changes in the way that Black lives are treated, I find myself conflicted as June 19 rolls around again. What would my ancestors think of the way we are popularizing their extended suffering? To celebrate my independence without demanding that this country dismantle the predatory behaviors that prolonged their enslavement is problematic at best. If we are not careful, our half-hearted attempts to commemorate freedom will ignore that we are still fighting for it, every day.

We must embrace the full truth. Juneteenth cannot only be about the barbecue or the red, black and green balloons from Amazon’s Juneteenth collection. It must also be as sorrowful as it is joyful. It must challenge us to change the world as much as it shines a light on our progress.

This is what I am taking with me to the mic this Juneteenth. As I stand before a new crop of people, who think that this holy day, this shiny moment, is made for them to be closer to understanding “the Black experience,” I will urge them to consider whether they are willing to do the work of freedom. The work that toils and sacrifices, that does not end with one bill granting a national holiday being signed into law or one footstep toward equality, but recognizes that freedom is something that cannot be delayed or denied. It must come in the summer of our lives – while the air is still hot.

Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton is an internationally-known writer, educator, activist, performer and the first Black poet laureate of Houston, Texas. Formerly ranked the No. 2 Best Female Performance Poet in the World, her recent poetry collection, Newsworthy, garnered her a Pushcart nomination, was named a finalist for the 2019 Writer’s League of Texas Book Award and received honorable mention for the Summerlee Book Prize. Its German translation, under the title "Berichtenswert," is set to be released in Summer 2021 by Elif Verlag. She lives and creates in Houston, Texas. For more information visit www.LiveLifedeep.com