Juneteenth: Recalibrating the Narratives of Race in America

Enslaved African Americans in Virginia, May 14, 1862 (Library of Congress).

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (I John 1:8).

I went to have my eyes checked this week. In the waiting room, I had a conversation with a man my age whose family has lived in Washington state for six generations. His great-grandfather had come to the Northwest on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. “He was a Presbyterian minister,” he told me. “Before coming west, he managed the Hermitage, President Andrew Jackson’s plantation in Tennessee.” 

This man was clearly proud of his family heritage, as though the whole history of America were coursing through his veins. But the thousand-acre Hermitage, the source of Jackson’s wealth, had only grown and prospered through the labor of enslaved people. I wanted to ask this man what he knew about his great-grandfather’s story. How did a minister of the gospel end up in charge of such a brutal and evil enterprise? How could he have justified it? How did his descendants feel about this stain on their family tree? How does the descendant right in front of me feel about it?

I sensed that such questions would not be welcomed. And it was not the best setting to explore them. Before I could frame a response, I was summoned to the examination room, where I would learn that my eyes were fine. But what about America’s eyes? When we look at ourselves and our history, can we see clearly now?

In 1989, African-American poet Lucille Clifton took a tour of Walnut Grove Plantation in South Carolina. She was the only black person on the tour. Throughout the tour, not a word was said about slavery. But when the tour took them to the family burying ground, Clifton noticed some crosses and markers outside its walls—the nameless graves of slaves. So she asked the guide, “Why haven’t you mentioned slaves?” 

The guide said that she hadn’t wanted to “embarrass” her, and Clifton responded, “Well, I’m not a slave, and I don’t know why you think I’d be embarrassed.” So the guide, somewhat chagrined, looked in the plantation inventory and found that there had been ten male slaves there, plus however many uncounted females, who were not considered valuable enough to inventory.

Clifton’s experience became a poem:

among the rocks
at walnut grove
your silence drumming
in my bones,
tell me your names.…

tell me your bashful names
and i will testify.… [1]

After she had read this poem around South Carolina for a while, Ms. Clifton got a letter from the director of the group that has restored the plantation, saying that they had built a model slave cabin and were now telling the story of all the people who lived there. And then, after one of her readings, a woman came up to her and said that her family had once owned Walnut Grove, but she herself had never gone back—she was too ashamed. “The next time I come here,” Clifton told her, “you and I will go together.” [2]

As a white American man, I know that I need to go on such a journey, to the places where the “bashful names” can testify about the racism in our culture and in our selves. I need to get my eyes checked, my ears checked, my heart checked. We all do. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. 

The disturbing eruption of overt racism in recent years has shocked and horrified us—This isn’t who we are!—but perhaps some good may come from its blatant visibility. Issues of race in America are now harder to deny. The need to repent is harder to ignore. A hard diagnosis quickens a healing response. Confession fosters renovation. 

Not everyone in America is willing to do this work.  Right wing cringing over “critical race theory” is reaching ludicrous proportions. Texas politicians are crafting laws to protect fair-skinned children from having their feelings hurt by learning about white folks doing evil things to black folks. A watchdog group in Nevada wants teachers to wear body cams so they will never dare say a bad word about American history. 

But for God’s best friends, the way of fear is the way of death. As Episcopal priest Stephanie Spellers puts it, “many of us long to live as beloved community and to reckon with the pain that racism has inflicted – and continues to inflict – in our personal lives, our churches and institutions, and society as a whole.” [3]

Spellers is part of the team that has created Sacred Ground, a powerfully formative church engagement with race and racism in America, using films, readings and dialogue “to call us from our small worlds and small screens and into intentional, sustained circles in which we can pray, watch, share our own stories, reflect, wonder, reckon, heal, and commit to action.” [4]  In small groups on Zoom, my own local parish has been making this journey on sacred ground over the past seven months. The material is rich and the conversations real. Some of our learnings are unsettling, even heartbreaking, but the trajectory of healing and transformation predominates. We move with our eyes on the prize, toward that promised land undimmed by human tears. [5]

To mark the inauguration of Juneteenth, the new federal holiday celebrating the end of slavery in America, journalist Amy Goodman interviewed writer and poet Clint Smith, author of How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. Responding to the criticism that the new holiday doesn’t really change anything, Smith argued that “names and symbols and holidays … aren’t just names and symbols and symbolism. What they are are reflective of the stories that people tell. And those stories shape the narratives that societies carry. And those narratives shape public policy. And public policy, that shapes the material conditions of people’s lives. Which is not to say that taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee or making Juneteenth a holiday is going to erase the racial wealth gap. Of course not. But what it is is part of an ecosystem of narratives and stories and ideas that can help us recalibrate our understanding of why certain communities look the way that they do and what needs to be done and invested in those communities to create a new set of opportunities.” [6]

I encourage you to view or read the entire interview, but let me leave you with Smith’s conclusion, when he recited a powerful passage from his new book.

“I come from a city abounding with statues of white men on pedestals and Black children playing beneath them, where we played trumpets and trombones to drown out the Dixie song that’s still whistled in the wind. In New Orleans, there are over 100 schools, roads and buildings named for Confederates and slaveholders. Every day, Black children walk into buildings named after people who never wanted them to be there. Every time I would return home, I would drive on streets named for those who would have wanted me in chains.

“Go straight for two miles on Robert E. Lee, take a left on Jefferson Davis, make the first right on Claiborne. Translation: Go straight for two miles on the general who slaughtered hundreds of Black soldiers who were trying to surrender, take a left on the president of the Confederacy who made the torture of Black bodies the cornerstone of his new nation, make the first right on the man who permitted the heads of rebelling slaves to be put on stakes and spread across the city in order to prevent the others from getting any ideas.

“What name is there for this sort of violence? What do you call it when the road you walk on is named for those who imagined you under a noose? What do you call it when the roof over your head is named after people who would have wanted the bricks to crush you?” [7]


Beyond the ordeal: A biblical vision

[1] For the complete text, and a recording of Clifton reading it: https://owlcation.com/humanities/Lucille-Cliftons-at-the-cemetery-walnut-grove-plantation-south-carolina-1989

[2] From Clifton’s 1995 interview with Bill Moyers: https://www.modernamericanpoetry.org/criticism/bill-moyers-interview-cemetery-walnut-grove-plantation-south-carolina-1989

[3] The Rev.Canon Stephanie Spellers, https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sacred-ground/message/

[4] Ibid.

[5] For more information on Sacred Ground and how to get it for your community: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sacred-ground/

[6] For the video interview: https://www.democracynow.org/shows/2021/6/18   For the text of the interview: https://www.democracynow.org/2021/6/18/juneteenth_federal_holiday

[7] Clint Smith, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America (Little, Brown and Company, 2021).  Available at https://www.clintsmithiii.com

2 thoughts on “Juneteenth: Recalibrating the Narratives of Race in America

  1. Dear Jim, Indicted as a complicit white Tennessean (mostly reformed, I pray)), I deeply appreciated your meditation on vision and slavery. Many fond memories flood in when reading your posts. This comes with love, Huston

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