Reflections on Juneteenth

by Dennis Hunter

Slaves cutting sugarcane, 1823. British Library

I'm writing this late in the evening on June 19, 2020, and something about this Juneteenth does not sit well with me.  As we've approached this day, our nation—our world—has been electrified by the Black Lives Matter movement. America hasn't seen so much vociferous conflict over racial injustice since the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s. If the BLM movement bears many obvious similarities to the Civil Rights movement, it also bears a striking difference. Black and brown Americans are not here today saying, "We have the right to sit at the same counter, or to attend the same school, or to drink from the same fountain, or to cast the same vote as you do."  They are here today saying, "We have the right to stay alive. We have the right not to be killed in the streets with a chokehold by the very people who are sworn to protect us as citizens of this country. We have the right not to be shot and killed in our beds based on no-knock warrants. We have the right to demand justice when our children, our brothers, our sisters, our mothers, our fathers, our cousins, our husbands, and our wives are disproportionately targeted, harassed, arrested, incarcerated, tortured, and murdered in this nation based on the color of our skin." My email in-box has been flooded in the past few weeks with messages in support of the BLM movement from mostly white corporations, mostly white yoga studios, mostly white media outlets, mostly white nonprofit organizations—all seemingly wanting to reassure their audiences that they are on the right side of history and they fully support the movement for racial justice. One wonders, after the American news cycle inevitably moves on to the next thing—less than a month ago, almost every headline was about coronavirus—if these corporations, yoga studios, media outlets, and nonprofit organizations will have actually incorporated more black voices, more black board members, more black teachers into their inner circles. Or was it all just email marketing? Today, not surprisingly, my in-box saw quite a few emails from those same mostly white voices commemorating today, Juneteenth, as something meaningful to them.  Let me be clear. I don't want to diminish the celebration of this holiday for anyone who finds meaning and value in it. But I also know that the Hallmark corporation wants to monetize Juneteenth sentiment, and they not only have cards for it but they also encourage you to creatively share your Juneteenth thoughts on Instagram and tag @HallmarkStores in your post. For the sake of my fellow white people who want to honor Juneteenth, allow me to draw your attention to the actual language of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution—the one that formally abolished slavery. "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Look more closely at that dependent clause in the middle of the sentence: "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." That single dependent clause was the origin of our national criminal justice system in the post-slavery era. If black Americans couldn't be enslaved outright, at least they could still be unfairly persecuted, criminalized, and institutionalized. This systemic racial injustice was not addressed by the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s but has only intensified with the "war on drugs" and the wholesale incarceration and extreme sentences given to black Americans. If this seems like a leap to you, please continue reading.  The United States is home to 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's prisoners. And who are those prisoners?  African Americans make up only 6.5% of the American populace but 40.2% of the prison populace. A white American male has a 1 in 17 chance of ending up behind bars. A black American male's chances are 1 in 3. Right now, on June 19, 2020, there are prisons in Arkansas and Louisiana where mostly black prisoners are taken out into the fields to hoe the ground or to pick cotton, sometimes for a wage of $0.10 an hour, but more often for nothing—forced labor. They are guarded by white men on horseback wearing cowboy hats and carrying guns, and when they displease the guards they are sometimes laid face down on the ground, with their pants down, and beaten with leather straps. These prisons are modern-day plantations, and often privately-run institutions managed by large corporations with shareholders and powerful lobbying forces. They are sanctioned by the government and display no less horror being experienced in them than in the most vile slave-holding plantations of the 1700s. And right now, on June 19, 2020, many of those inmates are getting sick and dying in COVID-infested dormitories, with little or no access to healthcare, no access to visitation from family members. Punishment by pandemic. In the past few weeks, several black men have been found hanging from trees in American cities. Authorities so far claim that they were suicides, but investigations are ongoing. And tomorrow, the president will hold a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the state where I grew up. His rally was originally scheduled for today, on Juneteenth, but "when he learned" that it was Juneteenth he allegedly decided to postpone the rally until tomorrow out of respect for this occasion. At the same time, the president sent a message on Twitter threatening that "protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes" will be roughly handled at his rally. "Please understand," the president warned, "you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!" The rally will take place only a few blocks from Greenwood, the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, when white supremacists carpet-bombed an entire black neighborhood from private airplanes, dragged black Americans from their homes, murdered them in the streets, and buried them in mass graves. No one knows for sure how many were killed, but it is regarded as the single worst incident of white on black racial violence in American history. Now here's something interesting. I grew up in Oklahoma and went to school there. I left the state when I was twenty-one. I am now fifty-one, and I only learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre last year. It was never spoken about when I was growing up in Oklahoma. It was not in our history books. I grew up knowing nothing about the atrocity that had taken place in my home state around the time my grandparents and great-grandparents settled there. 

Greenwood section of Tulsa burning, 1921

How is that possible? Because history books are written by the victors, and when chattel slavery was taken away from the Southern states by the 13th Amendment, they devised new ways to keep black Americans in cages, in ghettos, in the penal system, and living perpetually on the edge and on the run, fearing for their lives and the lives of their children. In fact, I don't really think that the Civil War ever decisively ended. It just turned into a Cold War, one that has been simmering for more than 150 years.  So, yes, this Juneteenth has been unsettling. Maybe it's just me, gradually opening my white eyes and seeing how morally bankrupt this nation is when it comes to the ways we treat people of color. Shall we talk about white privilege? The fact is, it's only through the eyes of white privilege that I get to see these things and grapple in my mind with the harsh realities of racial injustice, as if for the first time in my life, instead of living under the boot of racial injustice every day of my life because of the skin I was born with. According to Hallmark, "Every Juneteenth, African-American communities around the nation break out in joyful celebration of freedom, family, heritage, and community to commemorate June 19, 1865." Maybe they do. And if so, I honor their celebration.  But on this particular Juneteenth, in 2020, I find very little in our national racial situation about which to be joyful and celebratory and a great deal about which to be angry and concerned. For whatever my voice is worth, I raise it now in solidarity with those who have suffered far too much, for far too long, at the hands of a nation that is heavily invested in pretending that their suffering is self-created or is not real. Black Lives Matter.

Dennis Hunter is the Vice President of The Warrior Flow Foundation. For the past 18 years, Dennis has taught meditation, mindfulness, and Buddhist studies in classes, workshops, retreats, teacher trainings, and private sessions and online. A former monk who lived for two years under the guidance of Pema Chödrön at her monastery in Canada, he is author of the books You Are Buddha (2014) and The Four Reminders: A Simple Buddhist Guide to Living and Dying Without Regret (2017).


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