Juneteenth, Black Lives Matter, and Myself

June 22nd, 2020

History, Memory and Identity in the Summer of 2020


In September of 1862, in the middle of the American Civil War, President Lincoln issued an executive order known as The Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation freed all enslaved people in the rebelling southern states once they were outside the control of the Confederate government by the advance of Union soldiers.  It went into effect on the first of January 1863 roughly half way between the beginning and end of the war.

Texas at the time was on the westernmost edge of the Confederacy and saw little fighting and little military presence.  As such, the news and enforcement of the proclamation did not reach Texas in 1863, or 1864.  On June 19, 1865 about a month after the end of the war, a general from the US army arrived in Galveston, Texas and announced to the slaves that they were free. Since that date, Juneteenth, a combination of `June` and `Nineteenth`, is celebrated. For most of American history post slavery, Juneteenth remained a day marked almost exclusively by former slaves and their descendants and African-Americans more broadly.

In August of 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. In the anti-police-violence protests that followed, the “Black Lives Matter” hashtag and movement that had been started a year earlier came to prominence.  The phrase came from a poem one of the founders posted on Facebook titled “A Love Note to Black People.”  There was a feeling that the lives of black Americans were not being valued, and that the death of a black American was not consequential.  That movement, and that sentiment has returned to the forefront of American discourse again and again, each time as part of a response to a shocking, although no longer surprising, act of violence.

Am I Part of the Problem?

I was born in 1978, the son of two American Jewish university professors.  I was raised by my parents in a Jewish home, traditional but not orthodox.  Until eighth grade I was in private school, surrounded by other, mostly middle class, Jews.  I was also raised by American Media: Saturday morning cartoons, Baseball games, Hollywood, The A-Team, The Simpsons. In High school, I went to a diverse public school where I met people of color.  I made friends, mostly because I didn’t understand the social norms that said otherwise.

The history we were taught, both in the Jewish school and the public school, was from the perspective of the majority white Christian population.  (The exception was Jewish and Israeli history, which I learned from a European Ashkenazi perspective.)  We learned little about the realities of African American life, how the expanding country treated the native tribes, or about the realities of social and cultural strata in Israeli society.

As an adult, I have put myself in circles where we are able to talk about difficult parts of our collective history, where we want to learn the uncomfortable truths to help make us better people.  We try to understand historical events from the perspective of their various participants and how different people would have experienced them differently.  As is usually the case, it is most difficult when you turn the examination back on yourself and ask: “what is my role in this.”

Is this my share of the weight of history, or my privilege?

History as Myth

As we remind ourselves every Passover to remember slavery and the Exodus as if we were there ourselves, we internalize the history of our identities as our own.  This is how we, as individuals and as a community grow.  Keeping history at arm’s length allows us to keep a safe distance and not fully engage with the lessons that can be learned.  Internalizing our history forces us to confront those lessons, hard as they may be, and to come out with new ideas that help us forge a new path.

As a Jew, I connect with the rich history and traditions, the holidays, the focus on family and education.  I also feel as though I was exiled by the Babylonians, as though I was persecuted in Spain by the Inquisition, in the Shtetl by Cossacks, in Europe by Nazis, in Israel by invading Arab armies, and in America by anti-Semitism. 

I internalized American history much as I did Jewish history and there were times when my Jewish identity and my American identity overlapped; Schindler’s List being a blockbuster; and times when they were at odds; every year at Christmas time.  But I was proud that I shared the name of the President who ended slavery. I was proud of the advancements of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.  I was proud of the people who stood up for what was right, even against incredible odds.  That pride is coupled with the pain of the suffering caused by bringing Africans to the new world crammed into ships, selling them like cattle, working them on plantations, treating them as second-class members of society under Jim Crow laws, and even now being beaten and killed by police. 

How can one keep all that history, all that dichotomy, all that happiness and pain in one place?

When I emigrated to Israel, or more appropriately before that when I began to identify as Zionist, I internalized the history of Israel as my own just as I had with Jewish and American history.  I was celebratory of independence and proud of our military successes.  I loved the history and tradition of Jerusalem, the modernity of Tel Aviv, and the rolling hills of the Galil.  Falafel with tahini dripping down your arm, and the poetry and songs from the enlightenment to today.  And along with that I feel the pain of being forced out of one’s home, of living in uncertainty, of being profiled and being treated like a stranger in your own home, of checkpoints and closures.  I adopted it all as my own.

It takes a lot of work, and for most of history people have avoided it, detaching themselves from the ‘other’ and going about their existence.  But we are now in an age where we have the time and resources to meet our history more completely.

But still, Land Day was not something I learned about, Juneteenth celebrations were never a part of my experiences.  


As Jews, we retell the story of slavery and the Exodus every year during the Passover Seder.  We talk about toil and hardship, bricks and mortar.  But slavery, like so many other injustices, is as much about power and control as it is about the actual work.  Slavery denies basic humanity, feelings, relationships and ambitions.

“There’s a paradox inherent in the fact that emancipation is celebrated primarily among African-Americans, and that the celebration is rooted in a perception of slavery as something that happened to black people, rather than something that the country committed. The paradox rests on the presumption that the arrival of freedom should be greeted with gratitude, instead of with self-reflection about what allowed it to be deprived in the first place. Emancipation is a marker of progress for white Americans, not black ones.”

– Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker, June 19, 2020

Any monumental societal shift demands both an external and internal personal change.  The end of slavery was no different, but those burdens were not shared equally.  Slavery and it’s impact were experienced by everyone in the society. To truly leave slavery behind as a society, slave owners have to change their world view, rotate their perspective so that they are not looking down on others, but rather looking them straight in the eye. 

I was taught growing up that we were all on the same level, looking each other in the eyes, but I felt as though I had to look up to see the eyes of Christian America. It wasn’t until later that I understood how much my Black peers were straining their necks to meet my eyes, how society treated them as if their lives did not matter as much as their lighter skinned neighbours. That important personal reflection and change was never taken on by White America even as slavery was condemned by history.  And yet, it was forced on Africans and is still a part of the American identity of their descendants.

Looking Backward to Move Forward

In Israel we temper the joy of Independence with the memory of the costs by putting memorial days up against Independence Day celebrations.  First by remembering the Holocaust and then friends whose lives were lost in the struggle of creating and maintaining the country and then celebrating the triumphs and joys.  Making Juneteenth an American holiday brings some of that sensibility to the US.  The two weeks between Juneteenth and July 4th could be a time to remember and celebrate the country, it’s triumphs and mistakes, it’s symbols and icons, it’s history and its future.

Is this enough for Justice? Will this make society equitable?  No.  But by including a celebration of the emancipation from slavery into American society we will be acknowledging that slavery was a part of our history.  And that is a large step towards truly seeing each other eye to eye.
Juneteenth helps us remember how far we have come, and Black Lives Matter helps us remember how far we have yet to go.

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