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‘We Must Act Out Our Freedom’

We Keep Us Safe; photograph by Amandla Baraka
Amandla Baraka
Amandla Baraka: We Keep Us Safe, June 2020

I will look for you in the stories of new kings. Juneteenth isn’t mentioned in the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois or Carter Woodson, the founder of The Journal of Negro History. I haven’t yet come across a description of the first Juneteenth celebrations equivalent to Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s report of the ceremonies for the Emancipation Proclamation as it was read aloud on Port Royal Island, South Carolina, on New Year’s Day, 1863. Black troops, white commanders, white clergymen, white women schoolteachers, black women schoolteachers, and the formerly enslaved turned resisters gathered at the sober campground to ratify in their hearts the next covenant of the Republic.

Various sources tell us that when news of Lee’s surrender in Virginia reached the West a few weeks later, the Confederate army in Texas began to fall apart. Even so, federal authority depended on the presence of Union troops. In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant remembers that General Gordon Granger charged with “such a roar of musketry” at the Battle of Chattanooga that the rebels heard him from a long way off and had time to get away. When Grant learned that Granger had turned up in New Orleans, the War Department ignored his advice that the general not be given another command. Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to announce and enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. Texas was the last Confederate state to be occupied.

Surprise is an essential element of beauty, the poets say, and several arresting minutes of silent film shot by Reverend S.S. Jones in Oklahoma City in 1925 have been making the Internet rounds of late. His stationary camera captures a Juneteenth parade, a bold march of heartbreakingly well-dressed black people—marching bands, Pullman porters, black women’s clubs under large black umbrellas, and black veterans of both World War I and the Spanish-American War. They are moving through a residential neighborhood where we see scarcely any spectators, as if everyone who lived on that tidy street were in the parade. Juneteenth was a black holiday out West, not down South, I assumed, and therefore not a memory that traveled with black people in their migrations to the cities of the Northeast and Midwest in the first half of the twentieth century. Observance of Juneteenth supposedly fell off over time. It was revived nationally in the Black Expo days of the 1970s, when Kwanzaa was first catching on as the Africanist Christmas.

I’d not heard of Juneteenth until Ralph Ellison’s long-awaited second novel was published posthumously in 1999.* Juneteenth is mostly voice, or voices, “in the beloved idiom,” as Ellison said. It centers on the confrontation between a white senator and the black preacher who taught him when still a boy how to hold a crowd. The Ellisonian twist is that the racist senator may have been a white boy who’d been brought up as a black boy. The novel opens in the 1950s and flashes back to the senator’s childhood with the preacher on the black revival circuit in the South before World War I and his escape across the color line as a roving white filmmaker in the Southwest sometime in the 1920s. Ellison’s rhetorical invention reaches its climax as the senator and preacher remember, separately and together, a Juneteenth celebration on a hot, dusty night in a tent in rural Alabama, not out West.

Old-fashioned Negroes getting Emancipation mixed up with the Resurrection and vaudeville, the senator thinks at first. The preacher remembers the workers in white uniforms, barrels of ice, yellow cases of soda pop, the vast quantities of catfish and ham, coleslaw and chocolate cake. At the sunrise services, they were “playing for keeps.” The preacher is dismayed that his former prodigy could have forgotten how they in their sermon invoked the Middle Passage and its images of tongues cut out and talking drums stolen. One group can’t be given license to kill another in order to prove their superiority, he thinks to himself. He carries scars from the fights he got into trying to go to the polls in Oklahoma armed with ax handles and pistols, and accompanied by some Native American and white sympathizers. Ellison has maybe given his preacher a fighting past he wished he’d had himself. But then his preacher suspects that whites were attempting to destroy the humility of black people because they had sensed its life-preserving power, as if Ellison had to reposition him so that his Juneteenth peroration emphasizes how blacks sang and danced, survived and flourished.

Ellison opposed the notion of black life as a “metaphysical condition” of “irremediable agony” because that made it seem as though it either took place in a vacuum or had only one theme. In his writings about the jazz greats he heard play in his youth in Oklahoma, he gives them credit for expressing something about the optimism of blacks as a group that found no definition elsewhere. Ellison recalled with pride his music teacher, who had her students join the Scottish reel competition on May Day, ignoring people who said black students ought not to learn European folk dances. Black people coming from enslaved circumstances couldn’t cling to their cultural idioms and survive, therefore they sought to extend their range, Ellison claimed. Cultural synthesis was important to “the unnoticed logic of the democratic process.” He insisted that segregation had not cut off black people from various fields of influence and that in turn American culture was marked at every point by black vernacular culture. This mixture was an opportunity, as he saw it, a chance to make a humanly richer society.

Ellison, born in 1913, made much of the pioneer spirit shared between black and white, and it mattered to him that Oklahoma had not been a part of the Confederacy. Though blacks by law had the vote, Oklahoma’s state constitution in 1907 forbade integrated schools and classified as “colored” anyone with any degree of black blood, while Native Americans were classed as “white.” Ellison was only eight years old when in 1921 in Tulsa a black youth, Dick Rowland, was arrested for supposedly assaulting a white woman in a downtown elevator. Armed black men protecting the prisoner in the county jail turned back a white mob, after which white people went on a rampage, destroying Greenwood, the thriving black business section, looting, burning black homes, running black people out of town. Seventy black people were killed and nine white people.

In 1930, in Chickasha, Oklahoma, a black youth—Henry Argo—was arrested for the rape of a white girl and the attempted murder of her child. It was rumored that Argo and the girl were lovers. A mob of two thousand white men attacked the jail with battering rams, drove off the National Guard with gunfire, used commandeered National Guard equipment to pull the jail doors off their hinges, smashed a hole through the concrete cell that held Argo, shot him, and stabbed him. He bled to death on his way to a hospital in Oklahoma City.

In her autobiography, A Matter of Black and White (1996), Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher recalls that in her family the story was that the mob came back for Henry Argo only after the sheriff had assured the armed black men guarding the jailhouse that he was no longer in danger. There had been talk of parading his body through the black part of town to teach them a lesson. The town’s one black doctor gathered together bootleggers and gamblers—“this was no job for church folks—and declared that any white man who crossed Minnesota Street with that boy’s body would die in colored town.” Whether the story of black anger was legend or not, Sipuel notes that Argo’s murder was the last recorded lynching in the state.

Sipuel’s parents had moved to Chickasha shortly after the riot in Tulsa, where black men like her father—a Pentecostal minister—who tried to protect black properties got rounded up by white militias. There were no parks or playgrounds for black children in Chickasha when Sipuel was growing up in the 1920s. After she graduated from Langston University in 1945, the only state-supported college open to black students in Oklahoma, Sipuel volunteered to join Thurgood Marshall’s NAACP challenge to the state’s segregation laws by applying to the all-white University of Oklahoma law school—the only public law school in the state. In Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma (1948), the Supreme Court agreed with the argument that the state had to provide her with a law education under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Sipuel’s case was a precursor of Brown v. Board of Education.

The weirdness was elsewhere, I was telling myself back in February. My aunt in Massachusetts, a long-retired middle school teacher, was perplexed that her favorite Chinese restaurant was completely deserted, except for us. On my first visit to her little town near Fort Devens, where her husband had been reassigned, her history lesson was about the soldiers who came back to Fort Devens in 1918 with Spanish flu, and it spread from there. Fort Devens is long closed, phantoms snuck through my aunt’s window and replaced the thermostat she loved with an inferior one, and it was a further measure of her dementia that sitting there over egg rolls too rubbery to tear, she had never heard of influenza at Devens. It has been a measure of her dementia in the past few months that her understanding of Covid-19 remains on a par with that of seemingly everyone in the White House.

On March 16, New York City woke to learn that schools, restaurants, theaters, and concert venues would be closed. In the unpredicted schedule of gyms shuttered next and speaker-loaded squad cars roaming my neighborhood to warn people to maintain social distance; in the unprecedented drama of self-isolation and quarantine, followed by lockdown, angry noncompliance among black people was a clue as to how vulnerable we are in the pandemic. My trainer, a young black family man who saved himself from the streets, speculated that Covid was a Chinese invention for the trade war, but it backfired. In the face of mounting evidence about how, in lieu of a vaccine, social behavior mattered in dealing with the virus, my trainer, already streaming workout sessions, was adamant that he was more afraid of the police than he was of the pandemic.

The class character of the pandemic was soon very clear anyway—who worked in what were deemed essential services, who had to show up on those front lines, who had to keep packing and delivering, whom they were going home to, who had poor health in the first place and often inadequate health care. By mid-April in some states, black people made up a much higher percentage of confirmed cases than the percentage of black people in the general population. Black people were 40 percent of Covid sufferers in Michigan, while only 14 percent of the population. “Liberate Michigan,” immortal white people in Lansing chanted against strict lockdown. The pandemic was showing us that most of us had never had merely to survive before.

Empty streets as a shared global experience, cleaner air, surveillance anxiety, loss of livelihood, disturbances in overcrowded prisons, hospital staff martyrs, double bunking in the graveyards, and nightly salutes to workers, soldiers, and volunteers in danger also underscored how small is the man trying to hold our national destiny hostage to his sour vanity. Drink bleach, inject bleach, rise by Easter. If a person cannot imagine a future, then we would say that that person is depressed. But if a country cannot envision a future, how do we describe its condition? My partner said Republican Party policy was simply, “You can go back to work and you can die.”

By May Day, the stay-at-home order in the city was beginning to crumble. Footage would appear on social media of, say, an incident in Brooklyn in which the police had used social distancing guidelines as the reason to get rough with black guys hanging out in groups on sidewalks and between parked cars. They almost followed a script: disperse, why, disperse, no, stand-off, push, push back, take down. Then it happened.

Say his name
George Floyd

The pandemic dramatized what inequality looks like, and the police killing of George Floyd showed everyone what being black in America feels like, over and over again. Young America blew the lid off lockdown, a blast wave of outrage that reached around the world. Jill Nelson told Henry Louis Gates Jr. years ago that she was tired of going to all-black or mostly black demonstrations for social justice, that it was time for white people to show up. They did: their vast numbers are what Occupy Wall Street and Ferguson have led to, in part. Sustained public protest, staying in the streets, those who shall not be moved, taking over the mainstream narrative, if you want to talk that way, the coming together of opposition, if you prefer. Black Lives Matter was ready.

“Seize the time,” posters said. I turned away from the demonstration at Lenox Avenue and West 125th Street after only fifteen minutes on the last Saturday afternoon in May. I couldn’t hear the speeches and was too fearful after three months inside to wade into the warm crowd of a few hundred, even if everyone was wearing masks. I learned of demonstrations all over the city as the day went on, from Times Square to Union Square, back to Trump Tower, and for a second night things were hot around the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. One friend called the police about a redneck’s truck with Florida license plates parked overnight on East 12th Street. High-end sneakers went first in Soho, I was told, and white girls were spotted racing out of a jewelry shop. Electronics stores in Union Square got trashed, but the Strand Bookstore was untouched. Practiced black gangs wearing do rags hit lush life windows all the way up Madison Avenue after the cops rolled on.

The Third Precinct in Minneapolis had been set on fire the previous night; Atlanta protesters jumped police cars and shattered glass. LA and Orange County erupted in protests five hundred years in the making, my cousin said by text. “All the Power to the People!” Peaceful by day, chaotic when the sun went down, protests continued to spread across the country into 140 cities. Each seemed to gather up the names of black youth murdered by police—Breonna Taylor in Louisville, back in March—or by racist white assailants—Ahmaud Arbery in south Georgia, back in February—and to sift through the more than five thousand names in The Washington Post’s database of fatal police shootings since 2015. Amazed, I watched video of a police car burning at Monument Circle in Indianapolis, where my family marched in 1961. Two people had been shot in the area, but it wasn’t clear by whom.

Back in the Sixties, black leaders were under pressure to condemn riots, summer after summer. The leaders of old and new civil rights groups were placed on a spectrum of nonviolent to violent, as in who can be reasoned with. In 1992, after the unrest provoked by the Rodney King verdict, some were saying that images of marauding black people allowed federal and state government to dodge the issue of police violence. However, enough protesters in 2020 were not to be detained by old-style fretting over the difference between rebellion and riot, or what broken glass left behind psychologically in black neighborhoods. Young protesters quoted the Reverend King, who spoke of riots as “the voice of the unheard.” Michael McDowell, a founder of BLM Minneapolis, explained in an interview online that it was futile for local authorities to try to control community reaction to the murder of George Floyd. Lost property could be replaced, but not a life.

I was more trapped in my own script of protective, evasively moral responses than I had realized. A journalist friend covering the pandemic and its consequences in Brazil was shocked that I’d say I mourned the black man robbed of his life, yet waste pity on the cop who ignored his dying pleas or on the other cops who stood by. They’re not the dead ones, she said, and a white supremacist gun culture in Brazil had let the police kill 177 youths in the favelas of Rio in the month of April alone. The demonstrations and riots were part of the same movement and did wonders to bring policing and racial inequality into global discussion, I had to admit. The world was taking a knee. The sheer scale and brutal directness of what was going on urged me to look inward at my own symptoms of the philistine terror of change.

It’s not that there are no leaders, there is almost no need for one, because everyone is a leader in a decentralized network of contacts, alliances, affinity groups, with varied agendas. In his introduction to The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea (2017), Christopher J. Lebron observes:

Eschewing traditional hierarchical leadership models, the movement cannot be identified with any single leader or small group of leaders, despite the role [Patrisse] Cullors, [Opal] Tometi, and [Alicia] Garza played in giving us the social movement hashtag that will likely define our generation. Rather, #BlackLivesMatter represents an ideal that motivates, mobilizes, and informs the actions and programs of many local branches of the movement. Much like the way a corporate franchise works, minus revenue and profit, #BlackLivesMatter is akin to a social movement brand that can be picked up and deployed by any interested group of activists inclined to speak out and act against racial injustice.

Thousands of protesters demanded that police forces be defunded and disarmed and an end to lynching by proxy. The city council of Minneapolis agreed, and voted to disband its department. No other city has followed its lead. Many find, say, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s defunding proposals disappointing, yet the mass appeal of such proposals, their quick endorsement by well-intentioned mayors and even some police chiefs, confirmed what Black Lives Matter had been telling us since Trayvon Martin’s gun-stupid murderer was acquitted in 2013. The “prophetic storyline” was moving on. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act—passed by the House but not, of course, by the Senate—would end qualified immunity and racial profiling, ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants, limit the amount of military equipment in police department arsenals, and require officers to wear body cameras. Lynching would become a hate crime, one hundred years after the US Senate failed to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. De Blasio told the demonstrators they’d won, they could go home, but they weren’t listening. If it wasn’t going to be OK to break lockdown to hang out in bars, then it had to be more than OK to go to a demo, and the killing hadn’t stopped.

Court-decreed integration and affirmative action were twentieth-century social engineering solutions that the federal government in the near future and for some time to come most likely will be constrained to pursue. By the end of the twentieth century, programs designed to achieve such aims were being written off in some quarters as palliatives that failed to address the “time-release social debilitations” stemming from slavery. If the US is suffering, and the systemic racism of society is the underlying condition, then here is the cure: get rid of systemic racism. For its supporters, reparations are the twenty-first century’s farewell to the twentieth century and its problems of the color line, a financial reset button, a persuasive form of white atonement, a vindication of those black nationalist pamphlets about the promise of forty acres and a mule to the formerly enslaved that the Union never honored.

These days people speak of equity, not equality. Nobody is waiting around for a government apology for founding atrocities when meaningful compensation would say a great deal more. The cost of reparations usually has been put in implausible-sounding trillions, but Robert F. Smith, the chairman of Vista Equity Partners, an intensely successful black investment firm that specializes in technology, has proposed a plan by which large corporations, particularly banks, would, given their racist histories of exclusionary and predatory practices, set aside 2 percent of their net income for a decade to support and create black businesses. In his address to this year’s Forbes 400 Summit, Smith “pointed out that the net income of the ten largest US banks over the last ten years was $968 billion.” Two percent of that would be $19.14 billion, which could fund “the core Tier 1 capital of community development banks and minority depository institutions.” His 2 percent plan would also train students from black colleges for the telecom and tech sectors and digitize minority businesses.

That debate among twentieth-century civil rights organizations about whether to chart full citizenship by concentrating on economic advancement or winning political rights is obsolete, and so, too, is the argument about change from within or knocking the whole thing down. The struggle has always been waged on several fronts, and unevenly. The response to the death of George Floyd has also been shaped by black people in positions of influence. Their presence in the corporate, political, cultural, and educational institutions being asked to examine their systemic racism might be interpreted as a form of reparative capital. If our institutions are to hold together, it will be because minorities are insiders. “Love your community by voting,” Smith, the financial activist, said.

Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America, the Georgia politician Stacey Abrams’s blueprint for where we need to be headed, was published in the middle of the suspended reality of the stealth virus wrecking the economy, and it helped to renew popular discussion about voting as a way to implement change, our rescue, at last. Abrams remembers that the Voting Rights Act was undermined wherever possible, and her grandparents in Mississippi couldn’t vote until 1968. She describes her parents, both ministers, as coveted “super-voters,” people who never miss an election, no matter how small. Yet she wonders if she had been brought up on the civil rights mythology about the magic of registration. Her campaign for governor of Georgia in 2018 taught her that to cast a ballot was not always the same as getting it counted. Voter suppression is not new in US history: “Brokers of power have sought to aggregate authority to themselves.” Voter ID laws may have replaced bull whips, but the goal remains to discourage voting. A notary public’s fee to certify an absentee ballot is a revived poll tax.

Abrams pronounces the guilt of founding documents—the Constitution, the Naturalization Act of 1790—in the long history of trying to control who belongs to the country, who has access to citizenship. In 1868 the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment made anyone born in the US a citizen, but not Native Americans. The Fifteenth Amendment gave black men the right to vote, but not black women and white women. States administered elections, and when Union troops were withdrawn from the South in the Compromise of 1876 the battle gained momentum to defeat the political power black people exercised during Reconstruction. It was a long walk to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and though it took a while to take effect, Abrams says it changed black lives.

As she goes through the intricacies of her confrontations with and mastery of electoral law, she also manages to put faces to the forces of white supremacist opposition, those people against expanded voter rolls, felons’ rights to vote, absentee ballots, mail-in ballots, early voting, same-day registration—policymaking clerks, collusive state judges, biased secretaries of state, all abusing their offices to remove people from registration lists, disqualify applicants, purge databases, conjure up fantasy voter fraud. “Voter identification,” she writes, “is directly connected to suppression because the ID is a voter’s access card to the polls.” But then you have to get to a polling station and there has to be a polling station. Between the 2012 and 2016 elections, Abrams writes, the Election Assistance Commission reported that some three thousand polling sites had been closed. In much of America, race is the strongest predictor of political leanings. Who gets in matters. Ever the inspirer, John Lewis referred to the secular act of voting as “almost sacred.” Abrams notes:

Voting is an act of faith. It is profound. In a democracy, it is the ultimate power. Through the vote, the poor can access financial means, the infirm can find health care supports, and the burdened and heavy-laden can receive a measure of relief from a social safety net that serves all. And we are willing to go to war to defend the sacred.

The crime of being black while walking—maybe the expression cuts across class lines, because it often depends on which coded costume of blackness is seen trespassing where, but the civil unrest under the klieg lamps gave blacks and whites the chance to make their bodies political and to know something of what black feminists in the Seventies, such as the Combahee River Collective cited by Abrams, meant when they talked about using the common experiences of identity as new organizing strategies. Interestingly enough, when many people are saying that the time has come to talk openly about class in the US, Abrams blames the concentration on class for holding back the development of an identity politics that relates more to the “intersections” that governed her life growing up. She looks to an identity-based new majority coalition of the nonwhite, women, and LGBTQ, and offers statistics showing that the number of voters in these categories will continue to be larger than we’re used to thinking.

Our complex and unfinished history can be an impediment to the task of building solidarity and coalitions across racial lines when simplistically approached. Racism is one of those subjects that gives the feeling that there is no end to what you can find out once you start reading. Ralph Ellison never wrote about Booker T. Washington coming in 1905 to Boley, Oklahoma, one of many all-black towns founded by groups of black families determined to build better lives. Washington went back to Tuskegee and extolled the racial cooperation that the existence of such incorporated entities implied. Almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth, white bands attacked dozens of black towns, emptying many of them permanently. Ellison would insist that laughter enabled black people to cope and to deal with subjects they otherwise couldn’t go near. Some days in the overwhelming news of demonstrations, it seemed that a new generation was bidding farewell to an old black trope: laughter to keep from crying. No more indirection for me. The folk adage “Don’t let them see you suffer” turned into “No mas.”

This year, fireworks and firecrackers started in Harlem days before Juneteenth. They would begin early and go on all night. Explosions set off automobile alarms. The whisper of faraway rockets made me tense. Nearby, some whistled before they hit the asphalt. I stopped going to windows to see if I could spy colorful displays. “It sounds like small arms fire,” my partner said one night in the dark. “It sounds like Tet,” he said on another night, suddenly awake. In the middle of the night, it can smell like fire.

This was protest, defiance, keeping the movement going; celebration, misbehaving, power. This was the 24/7 of twenty-first-century talking drums. Many people were remembering Frederick Douglass’s fierce address delivered in Rochester on July, 5, 1852, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” He told the white citizens of the US that July 1776 was the “first great fact” in the nation’s history, yet he had nothing to do with it, because the principles of political freedom and natural justice embodied in the Declaration of Independence did not extend to him or the people he represented. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.” Slavery made a lie of the country’s principles. Douglass said that he would rather stand with God and the crushed slave than argue anymore that a barbarous, shameless system was wrong: “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.”

Juneteeth as I hear it in Harlem and read it in greetings from friends and relatives—Happy Juneteenth Weekend!—is the black Fourth of July, or even the new Fourth of July. “It shall be Jubilee for you,” we read in the Bible chapter devoted to the repackaging of rules and recommendations thousands of years old. I would not refuse the gift of one of those rare sixteenth-century silver Jubilee hammer heads with which every fifty years popes knocked on the sealed doors of St. Peter’s; nevertheless, in the black Protestant church the Day of Jubilee sounds too old-timey and might have to go the darkie way of Aunt Jemima. A protective rope can be thrown around the noble Fisk Jubilee Singers. Juneteenth replaces the solemnity of Emancipation Day. A festival feeling recognizes in Lincoln’s proclamation the instrument of war the Confederacy took it to be. The pieties of Emancipation have been outgrown. Gratitude for deliverance has dried up.

“Have some black culture. You’ll feel better.” Kevin Sweeney, a young filmmaker living in Santa Monica, California, observed that black culture and tech are among the biggest exports the US produces. “White America loves itself some black culture, it just doesn’t love black people. Still.” Although they wouldn’t seem to do so at first, given the anger boldly and clumsily on display, the numerous Instagram posts of conciliatory gestures and messages, the rush of seemingly every business, educational, arts, and religious institution to advertise or seek guidance for measures that would eradicate systemic racism, suggest that if the nation is ill, then an accelerated process of cultural integration should be prescribed. The multiracial citizenry will not go uncounted.

The not-normal nightly noise goes on. Either Juneteenth in Harlem never ended or block after block finds it necessary to warn the demons that lured to Mount Rushmore total fools of personal whiteness. Black people had crossed a threshold of pain, we were told, and white people and Latino people were crossing over with them; time was not going to save the Robert E. Lee Memorial in Richmond any longer. Confederate monuments were not, after all, slumberous.

July Fourth in Harlem is watched over by that envious moon. Someone’s antlers somewhere in the canceled city may be full. I, however, am waiting for the partial penumbral lunar eclipse promised by the CNN website. Is it lightning or fireworks, rain or rapid firecrackers, slow cloud or the earth’s thin shadow? The Buck Moon outwaits me, and here on my screen are new names to learn: Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, Shu Kei, Nathan Law, Isaac Cheng. We must act out our freedom, one masked, unnamed girl said in English to a camera during demonstrations on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China.

Late, I open an e-mail from Kevin’s uncle, John Sweeney, an attorney in Los Angeles who specializes in prosecuting excessive police force cases. He sent to the family the National Public Radio video of five teenage descendants of Frederick Douglass reciting passages from “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” John noted that he plans to play the haunting video as his family prayer before dinner. Isidore Dharma Douglass Skinner, a great-great-great-great-grandchild of Douglass’s, observes on camera after the readings that

someone once said that pessimism is a tool of white oppression, and I think that’s true. I think in many ways we are still slaves to the notion that it will never get better. But I think that there is hope and I think it’s important that we celebrate black joy and black life and we remember that change is possible, change is probable, and that there’s hope.

I thought it had happened while I wasn’t looking, but the moon is still huge; it’s the only thing up there tonight. I must move to another window.

—July 5, 2020

  1. *

    The Texas-born black folklorist J. Mason Brewer published Juneteenth, a slim collection of folktales, in 1932. In a letter to Arna Bontemps, his coeditor of The Book of Negro Folklore (1958), Langston Hughes is pleased to have discovered Juneteenth in his research for their collection, noting that Brewer has the same alligator story as Bontemps, but his version is not as good. He has stories Hughes remembers having heard in his Kansas childhood but had since forgotten: “I ain’t been there, but I been told bout how hit was in de slavery days.” Brewer’s tales of clever slaves in Hughes’s volume are set on small plantations along the Gulf and the Mexican border. See also Juneteenth Texas: Essays in African-American Folklore, edited by Francis Edward Abernethy and Carolyn Fiedler Satterwhite (University of North Texas Press, 1996).