Juneteenth (And the possibility of Reparations)

Today’s blog is going to focus on the meaning on Juneteenth and some interesting observations surrounding the topic of Reparations.

Hello, my gentle readers. I’m very excited about this blog entry because I get to talk about Juneteenth and why it’s important to Black people and American history.  Chances are, you’re going to see this after the official date of June 19th, but that’s okay.  I know that quite a few of you probably have no idea what Juneteenth actually is, and allow me to give you a quick rundown.

Juneteenth is celebrated on June 19th because in Galveston, Texas in 1865, the last remaining slaves were told that they were slaves no more.  Now, if you’re a history buff, you’re going to notice a little discrepancy here.  You see, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on January 1, 1863.  Now, this couldn’t be enforced in Confederate states while the war was still going.  The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865 with the last major Confederate army surrendered, and the proclamation could be enforced.  Of course, news didn’t travel as quickly back then as it does today.  There’s a good chance that slave owners knew that the war was over well before their slaves did.  Being the people that they were, they just weren’t going to inform them that they were now free, not when they could get a few extra months of free labor out of the deal.  So, we celebrate Juneteenth to commemorate the end of chattel slavery in the United States.

All caught up?  Great.  The funny thing about Juneteenth is that it is not widely taught and recognized.  It’s regionally celebrated, and it’s not on the federal school curriculum, though it should be.  Truth be told, I didn’t know that Juneteenth existed until after I was out of high school.  I don’t go all out to celebrate, but for me it’s a day of reflection.  I think about what my ancestors went through to make it in this country, after having their own identities and culture snatched away from them.  I think about the indescribable atrocities that they endured but still found a way to survive through it all.  Make no mistake readers; chattel slavery was no walk in the park.  No slave ever had it easy, and the things they were subjected to, day in and day out, it breaks my heart to think about it. But, I think on it anyway because without their struggle, I’m not here and alive, for all that entails.

The second thing that I wanted to talk about is Reparations.  Now, this topic came up because on Juneteenth of this year, Congress heard testimony from people about Reparations.  I think it’s wonderful that the topic is finally being discussed on a federal level.  Most Black households have been talking about Reparations for slavery for a long time now.  The idea has been batted around quite a bit, but this was the first time I can recall there being an actual Congressional hearing on it.  So, this is progress, and I can’t think of a better day to do it.

In case you don’t know, readers, Reparations is a pretty simple concept.  What Black people (and some other races) are asking for is for the descendents of African slaves to be compensated by the federal government for 400 years of slavery and government-sanctioned second class citizenship.  On the surface, this doesn’t seem complicated, and there is precedent for it.  For example, Japanese Americans received Reparations for being placed in internment camps and losing their livelihoods during World War II.  Even Native Americans received Reparations, though no one can deny that the dispensation of money has been less than stellar.  As always, this is easier said than done, and Reparations for the descendents of African slaves would be an undertaking the likes of which no one has ever seen.

The main thing about Reparations is that the federal government would have to apologize for slavery, and if you don’t think that we’re owed an apology, you’ve got another think coming.  This country would not be the economic powerhouse that it is without the free labor that my ancestors provided.  The wealth that slavery generated didn’t go away.  There are families out there that would have nothing if it weren’t for the back breaking work that slaves performed.  Behind every great fortune lies a great crime, and it’s time that people come to terms with that.

Another layer to this is the Jim Crow laws that were enacted to keep Black people second class citizens.  A really good example of that is the GI Bill.  In World War II, if a man went to fight for his country and came back alive, he was awarded money to make a down payment on a home. Owning property is a very important step to acquiring wealth, and every soldier got the opportunity to own a home, except for Black soldiers, of course.  There are other instances of Jim Crow laws that need to be recognized and apologized for in any Reparations given, such as redlining (but that’s another blog post in of itself).  The government of the United States allowed a significant portion of its population to be treated as less than based solely on the color of their skin.  It is high time that this be addressed and settled by our government.

Then, we come to the heart of the matter.  Will Reparations actually happen?  My guess is that it will happen eventually, but it likely won’t matter when it does.  This country has been saying for so long that it will take care of its citizenry and has reneged on its stances so often to believe that it will do what it says it will do is laughable.  There are probably people to this day still waiting on their 40 acres and a mule that was promised to the now freed slaves.  I also don’t think that Reparations will happen any time soon.  It’s nice that a hearing was held, but I can’t shake the feeling that that hearing was just for show.  It’s up to the congressmen and women to prove me wrong there, to see if they really care about attempting to acknowledge a wrong.  I’m quite tired of Black people being used for political reasons.  Reparations are not a political issue; it’s a humanitarian issue.  It shouldn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on if you serve the people of this country.  To deny that a great injustice has been done to an important part of the population is never politically savvy, but neither is attempting to use that population for brownie points.  You either do right by us or you don’t.  There is no more middle ground.

In addition to all this, and I hate to say it, but I’m not sure that Reparations will make much of a dent in the inequality that Black people have experienced.  The time for that may have passed.  40 acres and a mule meant something back in 1865.  It was an opportunity to carve out your own path in life.  In our society today, opportunity looks a whole lot different.  What could possibly be given today that would represent opportunity?  Money?  Land?  Paying off student loan debt (which I will take any day of the week)?  The logistics of Reparations is another issue.  One of the main complications is our population size.  There are almost 50 million Black people living in the United States.  I will be generous and say that 5 million of them are not descendents of slaves.  How are 45 million people going to prove that they are descendents of slaves?  If a monetary value was applied for Reparations, you have to divide it amongst those 45 million, which creates another issue.

Think of it this way, in 1988, Reparations were given to Japanese Americans for the World War II internment camps in the amount of $20,000.  Adjusted for inflation, that amount in today’s money would be $43,295.35.  The amount of people who received those Reparations was only over 100,000 people.  I can tell you right now that this federal government is not trying to give 45 million Black folk $43,000.  Even though this money would do so much to help level out the playing field, it is not going to happen.  I doubt $20,000 would even happen, and let’s face it, anything less than $10,000 is a slap in the face.  It’s a highly convoluted process for a very simple idea.

Finally, you have those who think that Black people shouldn’t even get Reparations.  You can toss out any theory of no Reparations out with the bathwater.  For someone, anyone to have the audacity to sit there and say that everyone in this country has a fair shake is insulting to my intelligence.  I don’t want to hear any more “we have the same 24 hours” or “pull yourself up from your bootstraps” platitudes.  My ancestors didn’t have boots, let alone bootstraps.  As I touched on earlier, wealth is generational.  Do you know when the last person born under slavery died?  1971, allegedly.  Perspective is an interesting phenomenon.  58 years is not a lot of time.  My mother was born in 1963. I’m sure some of you even have grandparents who could tell you stories of how things used to be and how some things never change.

I’m going to end this blog right here because this rabbit hole can get deep, real deep.  I will ask though, before this blog, did you know about Juneteenth?  Did you know about Reparations?  Do you have a respectful opinion about it?  As always, I’d love to know.  Thanks for reading.