Emancipation

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.

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10 responses to “Emancipation

  1. Friends,

    Please feel free to let your comments on this wander where they will. I hope to generate a bit of conversation by posting it.

    I’ve been on the difficult path of confronting racism – both inwardly, and through research into my family history – for 7 or 8 years now. It still amazes me how work there is still to be done.

  2. I think this is one of the most well-written pieces you’ve blogged.

  3. Maggie Jochild

    Amen, sister. I’m on the same road.

    I find it crucial to hold in my mind (and soul) two realities at once: My ancestors did the absolute best they could, given what resources and information they had, AND what they participated in/did to other human beings was, at times, as bad as it gets. Both are true.

    On this July 4th, I am struck by recent archeological work (done by indigenous Peruvians, mostly) which has proven that the so-called conquest of the Incas by Pizarro was in fact accomplished by non-Incan Indians fighting the Incan empire. Likewise, without the help of disease, European overrun of North America would likely have been halted. There never was any manifest destiny. We never were superior. And 40,000 years ago, there were no people to be found anywhere from the Aleutians to Tierra del Fuego.

    It’s not too late to fix this. But step number one is giving up American myths of being here according to g*d’s plan. We’re simply the folks who couldn’t get along with our neighbors in Europe plus the people we’ve stolen from every chance we got. It really is time to grow up, and we really can do just that.

  4. Perhaps acceptance for the past, and lack of tolerance for racism (from yourself and others) in the future.

    You cannot hold yourself responsible for the actions of those who came before you. And you can’t hold them to the same standards as you want to hold yourself.

    Our world has changed, and we know more now than we did then. Things that were acceptable back then (and there were many, many such things) are horrifying today. It’s part of the evolutionary process.

    The fact that you have awareness of such things shows that you are not condemned to repeat the past. You can speak out when you see injustice, help where you can, take action when needed. Try to be a good person, treat everybody fairly, and instill the same values into your child.

    Other than that…well, if you decide to go with that whole “sins of your fathers” thing, we’re gonna make you start hanging out with the Baptists on Sunday!

  5. I sort of don’t think the Baptists will have me.

    Thanks, you guys. Y’all. Whatever. For talking about it. It doesn’t happen enough.

  6. About ancestors:

    I think about them what I think of my living family members: I’m not responsible for their behavior, but I am responsible for any benefits I enjoy as a result of their behavior, the difference being:

    I really shouldn’t get caught up in guilt, which helps no one, but I really should give back that stolen inheritance.

  7. One more thing: I really don’t believe that my slave-owner ancestors were “just doing the best they could with the information they had.” No, sir. Those people damn well knew better.

  8. Maggie Jochild

    They may have known better, Body Mascot (although if you read the journals of slaveowners, you’ll be amazed at what they really don’t know), but, if so, they felt completely unable to “do the right thing”. Just as we know better about eating at McDonald’s, driving a car when we could walk or bike, having air conditioning when a fan would do — you know the list. But even the most scrupulous of us take short cuts.

    The economy of those times hinged on slave labor, just as our economy hinges on oil. And while the distance from our back door to Iraq is many more miles than from their back doors to the slave quarters, psychologically we are in just as much dissonance.

    These are not excuses. It’s a way of recognizing the difficulty of what we face or what they faced, so that we can garner our resources to do the right thing.

    Further, I don’t believe we leave behind their kind of thinking simply by being from a later time. The American myth of re-invention and/or generational change is compelling, but it is a myth. If you don’t name their “sins”, if you don’t even know what they were, you may do not exactly what they did but your reasoning will be theirs for what you do. It gets handed on until you consciously interrupt the cycle. And doing the opposite of what your parents did is merely the flip side of the coin — you’re still being motivated by the same triggers.

    If we really believed all our wealth and advantages in this country — even for those of us raised in poverty or still living in poverty — was stolen, not earned, not due to any effort or honor of our ancestors — how, then, would that change our current behavior? I don’t mean guilt, because I agree with you that guilt is a fucked up way to deal with anything. I mean a sense of accountability, the Jewish meaning of atonement, setting yourself right with others as well as with g*d.

    One thing I do, which I absorbed from an African-American writer friend of mine, is to pray. Especially before action or the creation of art. I ask my ancestors for their help. Even though I am not sure prayer is real or that life goes on after death (I am full of doubts), but if it does, they are now aware of much more than me and I believe the goodness in them is what is left of who they were. And they want me to do better than they did. So, I welcome their presence, their nudges, their tinkering. (Which I could not do if I was sitting in judgment on them.) It’s produced some freaky results. At one performance, my ancestors and my friend’s ancestors (who lived in slave/slaveowner relationship) were both crowded into the room, plunging it into deep chill and whispering, whispering. She felt it as well as me. To be honest, I wouldn’t believe it had happened if she hadn’t said she was aware of it, too. (Like I said, full of doubts. Even those one step out of atheism have spirituality, and all of us have ethics.)

  9. Beautiful images; very glad you wrote this. Thank you. I’d say more but I’m stealing the minutes to write this much. But thank you. I love your prose.

  10. Thank you, Polly. As you know, I’m an admirer of your writing, as well. In fact, I feel as if my blog has been visited by somebody famous!

    And thanks, everyone, for this conversation.

    love,
    Blue

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