Saturday, June 19, 2021

The Importance of Advocacy and of Opal Lee, Who Helped Make Juneteenth a Federal Holiday

Our law school, Dickinson Law, has been engaged in an important reflective process the last year, under the leadership of key individuals including Danielle Conway and Dermot Groome, among others.  We have worked together and separately to think about inclusion, and race, and discrimination, and difference,  and about how "the law" plays a part in making matters better or worse.  

How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith (2)On this first official, national celebration of the history of Juneteenth, I'm finishing reading a remarkable book, How The Word Is Passed by Clint Smith.  The journalist and poet uses his personal journeys to a number of locations inside and outside the U.S. that have been part of the history of slavery in the U.S.  One chapter is devoted to Galveston Island and its complicated history as the site where a Union general is said to have stood on the balcony of a villa in 1865 to announce the end of slavery to the people of Texas.

Mr. Smith attended one of the annual Texas state  Juneteenth celebrations at that villa and he writes about the impact on his own life's history as he watched Galveston youth narrating a chronology of events that shaped both slavery and its aftermath:

I watched these young people read to the audience parts of history that placed our country in context.  I felt, in that moment, envious of them,  Had I known when I was younger what some of these students were sharing, I felt as if I would have been liberated from a social and emotional paralysis that for so long I could not name -- a paralysis that had arisen from never knowing enough of my own history to effectively identify the lies I was being told by others:  lies about what slavery was and what it did to people; lies about what came after our supposed emancipation; lies about why our country looks the way it does today.  I had grown up in a world that never tired of telling me and other Black children like me all of the things that were wrong with us, all of the things we needed to do better.  But not enough people spoke  about the reason so many Black children grow up in communities saturated with poverty and violence.  Not enough people spoke about how these realities were the result of decisions made by people in power and had existed for generations before us.  


After college, when I was doing more reading on my own, I began to understand all that has happened to our communities, to our people, over generations -- it was liberating.  I had language to name what I felt but had never known how to say.  People sometimes believe that if they talk to Black youth about the historical legacy of slavery -- and the intergenerational iterations of systemic racism that followed -- young people will feel overwhelmed and shut down.  But there is enormous value in providing young people with the language, the history, and the framework to identify why their society looks the way it does. . . . I watched these young people share this history, and I dreamed of what it might mean if we could extend these lessons to every child.  How different might our country look if all of us fully understood what happened here?  

Mr. Smith wrote these words in the book that was published just this month, June of 2021, without knowing what was about to take place.

A woman who also recognized the power of this history, is Opal Lee, whose lifetime of advocacy began with her own home in Marshall, Texas, where on Juneteenth, 1939 an angry mob of white supremacists set fire to the home of 12-year-old Opal.  She is now 94-years-old.  She sat next to President Biden as he signed the legislation to make the today a national holiday of remembrance and celebration.  Opal Lee, "the Grandmother of Juneteenth," has been walking -- marching -- for most of her life in support of this moment.  But, as Clint Smith observes, "The project of freedom, Juneteenth reminds us, is precarious. . . ."

Read more about Opal Lee here, from the Washington Post.

Books, Current Affairs, Discrimination, Ethical Issues | Permalink


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