A few weeks ago, I got an unexpected day off when I showed up at the new construction on the east side and the water was turned off, there were guys in dirty jeans all over the place and their fixit stuff was all over the floors. I couldn’t clean the house, so I phoned the contractor, then took off for home. I decided to explore my way through east Austin instead of heading back to the main roads.
The streets were narrow and the trees and yards were lush and green, and wildflowers grew out of the sidewalk cracks. In my gentrified neighborhood, there are no cracks and there are few wildflowers. We’ve got groovy xeriscaping and “bring the troops home” yard signs.
I haven’t done much exploring on the east side. I drove for a while, seeing only brown faces. Then after a while, there was a slight mix, then all black. Then, suddenly, it was Juneteenth, and I couldn’t move.
“Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – which had become official January 1, 1863.” Juneteenth.com
I couldn’t move because suddenly there were cars lining the already narrow streets, and there were cars in front of me, cars behind me, and we were inching slowly, slowly deeper into the narrowing side streets toward I didn’t know what.
I come from a family ancestry rich with shady and nefarious deeds. We were privateers, pirates employed by the crown, so you can use your imagination. I do – I see leathery, tattooed men with my father’s build and salty women with muscular shoulders disguised as cabin boys, sailing wild and free across the great gray ocean, fighting and pillaging as they go – fighting and pillaging like you see in Hollywoood, where if you hurt somebody they come to with a bucket of ice water, and if you kill somebody he was an evil monster with no soul and no children, and if you go to rape somebody, well, it’s kind of funny, and in the end you both are friends again because she outwitted you and you wouldn’t have really, anyway. You’re a ruffian, a scalawag, the kind of ne’er-do-well the pudgy Christian mothers clack their tongues at and cuff on the ears, but really inside, your heart is noble and good.
Boxed in as I was, I could only follow the car in front of me into the heart of the neighborhood. A river of people, all black, were on foot and heading in the same direction, flowing around my car from left and right. There were parked cars lining both sides of the already narrow street, leaving a tiny gap for the 5-mile-an-hour traffic. I heard shouting from ahead, and began to hear the boom-boom-boom of music. I craned my neck out the window. A block ahead, the migration had stopped. People were standing three or four deep along the next cross street, which was cordoned off with a single rope and orange plastic flags. People in fluorescent safety vests were leaning on construction barrels, waiting. There was a Juneteenth parade coming.
Night after night, in a small room, a figure sits at the foot of a bed, gazing at the moonlight slanting in between the horizontal wooden slats of a window. She’s a black woman, a slave; emancipation hasn’t touched her. She’s thinking, I don’t have it as bad as some. She’s crying quietly. She feels like she’s drowning.
Then I wake up.
The crowd is clapping and waving and the din of the parade is raucous and muscular, very unlike the tidy sounds of celebration in my corner of town. Miraculously, a large white SUV has turned around and is inching around the cars, heading the other way. When it reaches me I scoot over best I can. I look up – behind the closed window a mid-40s white woman, hands gripping the wheel, shoulders rolled forward, jaw set and eyes planted on the narrow path out of here.
Yes, we were privateers, and we must’ve been good at it because we made a killing and settled ourselves down on the stolen shores of the American South. We decided to try our hand at farming. Except it wasn’t a farm. As it turns out, my pirate family owned a plantation.
Stolen land, stolen people.
You just can’t turn that into anything noble and good.
The drivers in front of me are getting out of their cars, leaving them parked where they are in the middle of the street. I sit there, my hands on the wheel, holding my breath. I reach for the door handle.
Then an old man is there, at my window. His skin is the color of flint, and his eyes look tired. “You trying to get out of here?” he asks, unsmiling. I hesitate, glance at the parade, feel the rhythm bouncing in my gut.
I put my hand back on the wheel. “Yes Sir,” I say. And somehow, he clears a path for me to back into. I edge the car around and pull away from the crowd, back out onto the main roads, away from Juneteenth.
And I didn’t even thank that man.