Unpacking Juneteenth

By Rev. Kurt Condra 

"You don't know Juneteenth??" the late Hecky Powell asked me, feigning incredulity. "That's  gotta change!" This was a few years back, as his namesake BBQ restaurant was launching a new menu item: Juneteenth strawberry soda. 

I say he was faking disbelief because I'm sure it was not the first time he had to educate a white person about the historic milestone in our nation's ongoing existential struggle with racism. Now it's a national holiday, widely understood as a celebration of the day a Union Army general proclaimed freedom for enslaved people in Texas. 

Hecky didn't tell me any of that. I don't exactly remember what he did say. But I have not forgotten the strange mix of feeling our conversation evoked: I felt inspired by his excitement, guilty and ashamed about my ignorance, grateful for his graciousness, and motivated to learn more.

What I've learned in the years since, is how insidiously the tragic effects of slavery continue to oppress black- and brown-bodied people. What I'm learning, is that my whiteness blinds me to all but the grossest, most obvious racist transgressions. I'm also learning it's up to us white-bodied people to wake up, because only we can change it.  

The first Juneteenth, celebrated in black churches in Texas in 1866, may have marked the end of slavery in the U.S. As a national holiday, perhaps it can mark the beginning of us white people investing in our own awareness, and doing our part to create the world we envision: A world that works for all.

Here's a starting point: 106 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice