Discovering Juneteenth

Juneteenth came out of nowhere, didn’t it?  To my knowledge nobody was asking that this day, celebrated almost exclusively by Black Texans, be turned into a federal holiday.  It wasn’t until my early 30s that I even heard of Juneteenth even though my father was an NAACP president and my mother grew up in the all-black town of Mt Olive, Arkansas founded by 13 free formerly-enslaved people.  When I did find out about Juneteenth it was a great excuse to have a barbecue where I could educate people about this little-known bit of African American history, but it has become much much more, for all of us.

My guess is that Congress thought this might be a good way to calm the broad ranging social upset related to the murder of George Floyd, but still, I am enamored by the fact that we now have a holiday where people can come together and celebrate the courage of all those folks who made it out of slavery, and commemorate those who didn’t. In doing so we acknowledge the horrors of slavery so that we as a country and other countries might avoid this ever happening again. 

Growing up as part of a marginalized group both in terms of number and the respect offered us, having a holiday for and about us is a wonderful thing to see in the world. It speaks to the falling away of the shackles that bound enslaved African Americans to a life that they did not deserve, the repercussions which we continue to experience today. But let’s not forget that no constitutional amendment, no law, and no holiday have really freed us all. The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution which ostensibly abolished slavery, provides that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Prison labor, where incarcerated people are paid pennies to fight California wildfires is still actively happening. So while we celebrate the end of chattel slavery for many, know that there is still work to be done in the realms of civil rights, equality, accessibility, inclusiveness and the right to be heard (Book bannings? In 2023?)

Freedom is an individual experience though it be requested, nay demanded, for all.  For the Buddhist practitioner, the path is one of liberation and the release from the shackles of ignorance and suffering. This means learning how to decrease and eventually be free of attachments that harm us. It means openly, embracing compassion and wisdom as a first thought.

I sometimes imagine my ancestors who passed from being an enslaved people to being free people, and what that must have meant for them – the disbelief, the joy, the confusion! My great great grandfather Andrew was sold twice – once from his mother and once from his first wife and child.  He and twelve other formerly enslaved families went on to establish the town of Mt Olive in Arkansas.  They supported each other in all ways – planting crops, tending livestock, raising children, and protecting each other from the terrors of racial violence.  I can never fully understand what they went through. But as a Black Buddhist, I do often confront what seem like insurmountable obstacles on the path. 

With such encounters, too numerous to detail, too frustrating to forget, I contemplate my ancestors’ experience. I recall that they endured all that they did so I could have this life now, this chance at Enlightenment. And when I do the Tibetan Buddhist practice of blessing and thanking the ‘merit field’ (those who kept the dharma alive before me in my lineage back to the Buddha), I bless and thank my ancestors first. Those who lived through 400 years of slavery so I could be here now, living the life I lead, afforded the ability to contemplate and practice the path of Buddhism and work very hard so that others may do the same.  

Juneteenth is something that I look forward to every year, but also something that is with me on the cushion every day. I celebrate not just for myself, but for the country and for the world because I know that each generation will now learn about what Juneteenth was and what it could mean. Celebrating our history, our resilience, our desire to be ever more free and self determined is a great way to be with Juneteenth as a Buddhist.

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