In 1963, I was 16 years old and lived in a town of 800 people in Wisconsin. Our church youth group collaborated with a church in Chicago to have an exchange so the white youth of Wisconsin could meet the Black youth of Chicago and break down the color barrier.
We lived and worked in the church for two weeks. One night, we ran out of milk. I offered to go to the corner store. As I walked, I became conscious of cat calls from the passing cars. Men and boys gestured out the windows and hollered insults. Girls and women on the sidewalk stared and mumbled as I passed.
I kept my head down, my mouth shut, and forced myself not to run. I realized that I was probably the only white person for miles around other than those nineteen teenagers from rural Wisconsin who were safely holed up in the church.
As I stood in line to pay, the Black customers kept pushing ahead of me. After a short while, I got mad. I stepped up to the clerk and said, “Would you please ring this up?” I put the milk on the counter and handed the dollar bill toward the young Black woman who could not have been much older than me.
“Put it on the counter.” I did.
I held out my hand for the change. She threw the coins on the counter. I realized she was not going to touch me.
As I walked back to the church, my head spun. I’m furious and this happened to me once. If it happened to me every day, I would explode in rage. I’d felt a raindrop. They live in a cloudburst.
Juneteenth is the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 and freed the Africans still enslaved by Texans. In December, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution formally abolished slavery. In 1979, Texas was the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday to celebrate the end of slavery. Today 47 states recognize it and now the federal government.
Juneteenth freed Africans from the bonds imposed by whites; whites need to free ourselves from the bonds imposed by ourselves. The only way to do that is to face it. Facing the history of slavery could free us as well. Our refusal to face the past chains us to it rather than frees us from it. Yet legislators are trying to prevent the teaching of the 1619 Project or critical race theory or even accurate history.
In Germany, it is a crime to deny the Holocaust. Nowhere do you see statues or plaques to Nazi generals. They insist school children learn about World War II and the Nazis so as not to repeat the mistake. Here we do the opposite. We have statues and plaques to the confederate generals rather than the victims of slavery.
I wish I could go back to that teenage girl in Chicago in 1963. I can’t. But in one neighborhood, neighbors walked daily with a Black resident and his daughter and dog so he would not be the victim of vigilantes like those who murdered Ahmaud Arbrey. In another, when residents pulled into their driveways at the end of a work day, rather than get out and walk into the house, they got out and walked over to a Black neighbor’s yard where she was in discussion with a police officer to make sure that she was not murdered in her own yard like Stephon Clark. It is our responsibility, as benefactors of an unjust system, to end the cloudburst. To do that, we have to face up to facts. That is the only way we will be free.