Last month, my 33-year-old daughter decided she would dig deeper into our ancestry by doing a whole lot of online research. She definitely went down a rabbit hole. I was delighted when she reported that there were lords and ladies in our lineage, because my heavily English ancestry has always seemed boring compared with her dad’s very Irish roots.
I was tickled until she found that my great-great-great-great-grandfather had owned slaves. (My dad was born in Kentucky, and his people first came to Maryland from England in the 1600s.) I didn’t have a comeback for her, but felt a deep, burning shame. I said something very lame like, “That was a long time ago,” like it was OK somehow because other people had slaves too. The whole conversation has stuck with me, filed into the nagging, bad-memory portion of my brain.
This has made me wonder more about Juneteenth than I have in the past, and by no means do I have the qualifications to do anything more than ponder it. I wondered if Juneteenth is a solemn or celebratory day for Black people. I know there are a lot of events coming up as the date approaches, but for Black individuals I wondered how the day is recognized. I envision families gathering around, sharing stories, food, and talking about their ancestors. And I’m pretty sure fancy teacups and lords and ladies seem unimportant when placed next to ancestors who were bought-and-sold commodities. I can’t begin to imagine it.
Slavery is one of those things I need to discuss with God. Where the heck is he in all of this? And like other societal issues — war, abuse, sex trafficking — all those things that trouble us, you have to wonder where God is. Does he see this? Why doesn’t he stop it? Young children in trouble at the hands of those who are supposed to help them. The young mom with the Stage 4 cancer diagnosis. Families driven from their homes because of wars determined by people they will never know. Slavery. Have we all made such a mess of things that there’s just too much to dig out of?
But then again, finally there was emancipation. Although many slaves were freed after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, slaves in Texas had to wait two more years, until June 19, 1865. Just because the president issued a proclamation didn’t mean every soldier in the country put their arms down and stopped fighting after the signature was dry. Slavery is so deeply embedded into our culture that its effects are still here. Who knows if or when they’ll ever be completely gone?
So yes, I’m horrified that my ancestors owned slaves, and I’m horrified that slavery even existed. It should never have happened in a world created by a just God. We’re all children of God, and to me, that alone means we’re equal.
But we’re not. There are children born into poverty every day. Some children go to soccer camp, and some go to juvenile detention centers. All things are not equal. I’ll be asking God why for the rest of my life, I’m afraid. Maybe someday I’ll understand it. I don’t buy that we’re all meant to suffer because he suffered, and that means we can be like him. Those who suffer most, does that mean they are closer to God? Who knows?
Back to Juneteenth, though. Do you celebrate, do you commemorate? I asked a fellow writer, one whose raw words routinely light a fire under my apathetic rear end, Abigail McGrath, what she feels about Juneteenth. This is what she wrote to me:
“I personally think it should be a day of mourning; having been enslaved for two years illegally seems to be a mournful thing for me. But Black people have been down so long, it looks like up to us. The thrill of having a holiday for ‘us’ overshadows any negative thoughts.”
So it’s still complicated. We can say that this national day of recognition at the very least serves as a reminder for all of us — Black or white or brown. A reminder of slavery, the evil that was perpetrated and the evil that was ignored — still ignored.
The thing about God is that we can never quite tell what lesson he’s giving us until the events and circumstances are well behind us in the rearview mirror. What I wouldn’t give for him to come down here and straighten everything out.