As I write this, the pillorying of Rachel Dolezal has been wiped from the front pages by the tragic murder of nine innocents at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. A young man steeped in the rhetoric of Nazism and apartheid has been arrested for the hate crime. Both occur during the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, which commemorates the day Texas slaves were finally freed, an event that is celebrated now in at least 40 other states. Juneteenth is not yet the federal unpaid holiday some hope it may someday become. But it is a time for remembering not so much the injustices of the past but the remarkable resilience and perseverance of an entire people through the most shameful period in American history.
150 years would seem a watershed of sorts. The anniversary arrives amidst two polarities: a white woman identifying as black, and a white man who feels so strongly that blacks must be eliminated that he would murder them. If we extend the definition of “anniversary” to include the entire year, we see the recent swimming pool incident in McKinney, TX, and an alarming number of black men killed by white police officers, some of whom have been indicted while others have walked. This extended view of the Juneteenth anniversary would include the Oscar won by songwriters John Legend and Common for Selma’s “Glory,” who accepted the award by reminding the audience that more black men are now incarcerated in American prisons than were held in bondage during slavery.
All of this is happening during the final innings of the Obama presidency, itself a kind of watershed and a reminder of the paradox we inhabit. In this watershed moment, more blacks are free today than ever before. Whole families have scuttled out of poverty into the relative security of the vanishing middle class. Some are rich. The playing field has been leveled to an extent. But not all of it and not for everyone.
If a watershed moment is a time for remembering, it is also a time for taking stock. This Juneteenth is therefore an opportunity to decide who we are. To reflect on our past and use its lessons to define the present. This is how we become wise. This is how we create the future.
As many, including the President, have already remarked, the church massacre in South Carolina echoes the Birmingham church-bombing of 1963. In the curious case of Spokane's black/white woman, there are echoes of Soul Sister and Black Like Me. In the history of Emanuel AME Church, we hear echoes of the entire African-American experience. Going back to 1816, its past contains links to a slave uprising, the period shortly afterward when slaves were not allowed to worship together, and the post-Civil War reconstruction that began in 1865. It survived the indignities of Jim Crow and stayed the course during the renaissance that was the Civil Rights Movement. It has not been missed by the media that the name Emanuel means “God with us.” Hearing this, one thinks: how else could they have survived all that?
Which is precisely the point of Juneteenth. It is a time to celebrate freedom. To remember that Texas has given us much more than a swimming pool in McKinney. A time to realize the connection between June 19, 1865 and July 4, 1776. For it was on Juneteenth—89 years after the birth of our nation—that America’s Declaration of Independence began to move into integrity with itself.
Our national holiday to celebrate freedom should be a festival on a par with Mardi Gras, running from June 19 through July 4th –a two-week celebration as significant as the time between Christmas and New Year’s.
Much of what we witness today is saturated with irony and déjà vu. The wheel turns, but we have not come full circle. “There is more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done.”
If there are times when the odds seem impossible, you keep on pushing, keep on keeping on. Wickedness and evil may reach unnameable proportions. And you may find yourself in the same silence as Samuel Beckett's The Unnameable wherein there is this realization: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I go on.”
How does this happen? Emanuel, that’s how. The "force that through the green fuse grows the flower" creates also the bliss that is Juneteenth.
It is interesting to note that fifty-four years ago (1961), John Howard Griffin, a white native of Dallas, TX, published Black Like Me, his personal account of riding Greyhound buses and hitchhiking through the segregated South disguised as a black man (with the help of doctor-assisted ultraviolet skin treatments). He did this to expose the difficulties faced by African-Americans during the racially turbulent period of the Civil Rights movement. Although he received many letters of praise and support for what he’d done, he was also met with hostility and numerous threats. Griffin eventually fled to Mexico for safety.
Before that, in 1948, another white man, Pulitzer-prize-winning writer Ray Sprigle, disguised himself as black to write a series of articles entitled, “I Was a Black Man for 30 Days.”
Also worth noting is Grace Halsell’s Soul Sister, her 1969 book about changing the color of her skin in order to discover what it was like to be a black woman in the United States.
Of course, this kind of blackness is temporary. Whites pretending to be black can always make it back to the safety of the white world. Trayvon Martin and Walter Scott did not have this option. So it's no wonder Rachel Dolezal is viewed with a certain degree of suspicion and distrust.
Some have compared her to Chet Haze, Iggy Azalea, M&M, and John Meyer. But she is different from any of these pop starts. Different too from the authors who donned black skin temporarily to write books.
Dolezal did not attempt to co-opt black experience for financial gain. Hers is not the historical insult of "black face" as some claim. As Jelani Cobb points out, she went to work shouldering the burden of African-American causes at the NAACP of all places. Her “outing” has now become the story. And not the work that remains to be done.
We are in a peculiar moment of our evolution. The endless chatter around the specious and confining category of race is an effort to come to terms with our shifting identity. It is an opportunity for society to say what it will and will not allow. People are taking sides and mounting arguments. The NAACP is disappointed. The Today Show interview begins amiably enough but Matt Lauer eventually grills Dolezal as if she were a Nazi war criminal. ("When did you begin to deceive people?") Jon Stewart responds with a simple“Whaaat?” In the end, it is Rachel Dolezal -- and only Rachel Dolezal -- who must decide who and what she is.
A famous literary critic was once asked to define tragedy and came up with this response: “A tragedy is when society wins.” Look at King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, or Othello, and you will see the truth in this. What’s at stake for people like Dolezal is the same as what’s at stake for everyone: How to be your authentic self in a world full of people who would have you become otherwise—some fiction they are willing to accept and tolerate.
All of this is playing out within a few days of the sixth anniversary of Michael Jackson's death (June 25, 2009). Jackson’s reconstructive surgeries were criticized as far away as Pravda as a pathetic attempt to become white. When asked about all this during their brief marriage, Lisa Marie Presley once answered that Jackson was simply exercising his prerogative to redefine himself. America may be in the midst of an identity crisis, but this desire for self-redefinition is as old as the Pilgrims and as mythic as Jay Gatsby. It’s a stony road. Not everybody makes it. But Jackson said it best: In the end, it won’t matter if you’re black or white.
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