The Story of Juneteenth by Kelly Brown Douglas
Tomorrow is a special day for me. It is Juneteenth. On June 19, 1865, news finally reached Galveston, Texas that slavery had been abolished. This was of course two and a half years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. While the actual impact of the emancipation for the enslaved remains a source of historical discussion if not debate, the fact of the matter is that the proclamation of emancipation and the reality of freedom for black women and men did not necessarily coincide. To be sure, for a variety of reasons, the Emancipation Proclamation did not have an immediate impact on the daily lives of enslaved women, men and children. While the “official” historical records marks January 1, 1863 as a day of emancipation, the historical record for the descendants of enslaved men and women marks June 19, 1865 as the day of freedom. For, it was on this day that the last slaves were free.
While the celebrations of Juneteenth have waxed and waned over the years, it remains a day in which African Americans reflect upon the “mighty long way” we have come as well as the “mighty long way” we have left to go on the pathway toward freedom. As I celebrate Juneteenth, in the words of a black gospel song, “My soul looks back and wonders how they got over.” And so it is that my theological imagination is stirred, for it is clear that it was by faith that they (the enslaved) got over. And so I ask, what kind of faith was it that allowed them to get over, that is, to survive a life of bondage? This question is even more pressing to me each time that I am reminded that there were those who were born into slavery and died in slavery, and thus, as Toni Morrison once exclaimed, “never drew a free breath.” So, what kind of faith was it that carried these people through life?
It was a faith that connected them to the fun of life. I am always struck by the fact that the enslaved, even in the most beastly of conditions, found a way to have fun—a way to play. That the enslaved could find a way to “fun around” contested any notion that they were created to be slaves, and hence, that they were nothing more than beast of labor. By “fun’n around” the enslaved were affirming that they were indeed sacred beings created by God. Their fun was a signal of their sacredness, thus bearing witness to the fact that they were children of God. Play is, in fact, nothing less than a testimony to our common humanity. It never ceases to amaze me that regardless of the circumstances in which children find themselves, they find a way to play. They find a way to have fun. The ability to have fun in the midst of conditions that defy one’s humanity is nothing less than divine witness to one’s sacred humanity.
The faith of the enslaved was also a faith that held them accountable to their community. Reflective of their African theological heritage which emphasized the importance of harmony—divine and human–the well-being of the community was of utmost concern to the enslaved. In order to mirror the harmony of their gods and the universe they knew they had to be accountable to one another, and thus, to their community. A spirit of rugged individualism had no place within their community of faith. Theirs was a faith that nurtured accountability to the whole, and that whole included those who went before them as well as those who would come after them. They were accountable to those who paved the way for them to have life as well as to those who would carry on. To be accountable to the community meant not betraying the past or ruining the future.
The faith of the enslaved was also one which nurtured integrity and tradition. They clung to the integrity of their culture and to their beliefs that confirmed to them that their God’s was not one that would enslave. They did not give up on their truths, their values, their ways of seeing and knowing God and the world. And so they continued to bear witness anyway they could through their secret worship services and in their songs to a God of justice, love and freedom. In so doing, theirs was a faith that also nurtured tradition—that is the handing down of stories, of wisdom, of spiritual resources which enabled them to maintain their sense of self and to claim their humanity and power in the face of conditions that would pervert their self-images and disrespect their bodies. The enslaved women and men were a traditioning people who handed down to the next generation the stories of who and whose they were and thus created a living legacy of a proud and divinely empowered people.
Finally, theirs was a faith that nurtured hope. This was a hope that the justice of God would indeed prevail and that their people would one day be free. It was a hope that allowed them to seek not revenge but rather to seek a better world for themselves and all who would come after them–the world that their God had promised–the world they testified to in song and in prayer. Theirs was the hope of a Juneteenth and beyond.
And so what kind of faith was it that allowed the enslaved to “get over”, that is, to survive and even thrive? It was one that nurtured fun, accountability, integrity, tradition, and hope.
Long ago I heard Marian Wright Edelman say in a convocation address that “We are so busy trying to give our children what we didn’t have, that we forget to give them what we did have.” I write of these things on this day not only because Juneteenth inspires my historical imagination, but it inspires my theological imagination as well. I think not about the freedom that the enslaved people did not have, rather, I think of the faith that they did have. This was a faith that charted the way toward freedom as it valued the sacredness of every human past, affirmed the sacredness of every human present, and nurtured the sacredness of every human future. This is the faith in a God of justice, love, and freedom. Theirs was a theological legacy that inspires me to think more practically about the meaning of faith, the responsibility of faith, the relationship between faith and freedom, and the faith that I will hand down to my children. So whether you celebrate or have not even heard of Juneteenth, be at least inspired by the story of Juneteenth – a story of freedom, a story of faith.
Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.” She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black Christ, Sexuality and the Black Church, What’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul. Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.