by Dorothy Randall Tsuruta
For a community perspective on the importance of Juneteenth, our Vice Dean, the Rev. Dr. Canon Ellen Clark-King reached out to Dr. Dorothy Randall Tsuruta, Grace Cathedral congregant, Professor of African American literature and former Chair of Africana Studies at San Francisco State University. We are grateful for Dorothy’s lifetime commitment to anti-racism.
Juneteenth, celebrated June 19th annually, tells how two years after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, finally in 1865 Texas got the news. And now finally 155 years later in 2020, the world seems to be hearing about it as if for the first time. Like Kwanzaa, Black History Month, and Martin and Malcolm’s birthdays, Juneteenth is celebration of who we are as Black People, that Black is Beautiful, and yes, that Black Lives Matter.
In 1974, Ella Baker issued a call to action:
“Friends, Brothers and Sisters in the struggle for human dignity and freedom. I am here to represent the struggle that has gone on for 300 or more years, a struggle to be recognized in the country in which we were born. I have had years of struggle ever since a little boy on the streets of Norfolk called me a nigger. I struck him back, and I have had to learn that hitting back with my fist one individual was not enough. It takes organizations, it takes dedication, it takes willingness to stand by and do what must be done, when it must be done.”
Yet here we are today, diverse crowds of thousands risking the deadly coronavirus, unsafely distanced, to rally against the atrocities committed against Black people.
What Ella knew, and we know too, is that there is more than one way to call a person a nigger. Today, hate speech, spoken or written, is a criminal offense. Thus the shrewd carry out attacks with nary a hateful word spoken, standing nonchalantly hand in pocket, hard pressing shoe on a Black man’s neck, barely a smirk betraying a mind whistling “Dixie.” Acting out the word nigger short of speaking it, takes form in a myriad of interactions Blacks daily have with whites, in secular and religious situations.
I was born in Detroit, 4th generation, into a nonviolent God-loving family, who by birth and by right, fought back in self-defense when attacked by violent whites during Detroit’s race riots. We descended from people who braved the underground railroad to Detroit: some crossed the Detroit River on into Canada, and many later traveled to Detroit on segregated trains during the great Black migration north.
Annually my family drove from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario in Canada, to attend the Emancipation celebrations there that commemorated the August 1, 1834 abolition of slavery across the British Empire and its colonies. From a child’s viewpoint it was an electrifying event with all the attractions of a 4th of July: goodies and rides for the kids, speeches and clapping, and soul food. It was there where the words “fugitive slaves” made its way into speeches that denounced slavery and cheered escape from slavery. Language can be confounding to youngsters. As a child I wondered how in the world could the innocent people who escaped slavery be classified as ‘fugitive.’ Surely the fugitives from Justice were the criminal whites who enslaved human beings right out in the open. That legacy of slavery still grips us, as we are daily confronted by white fugitives who out in the open still behave as if white is right and rights, their privilege only.
In recent days non-Blacks have publicly bemoaned their ignorance of how it feels to be an African American. Well who knows what it feels like to be born something else! The short answer is we feel we have the human right to expect justice, equal opportunity, respect for our own perspectives—and on that dark and moonlight night, while out jogging, meeting up with a neighborhood watch patrol that does not look upon us as a fugitive.
Juneteenth suddenly gets much attention on the omnipresent CNN and MSNBC. What people locally, nationally and globally of all races, are at pains to make clear, is that the present uprising must result in something actionable in laws and in minds — and that society must stop saying “Screw conscience.”