The Freedom to Belong

On June 19, 1865, it was first announced in Texas, the last stronghold of the Confederate alliance, that slavery was now illegal and thus all African Americans were free.

On the one hand, nothing much changed.  After some revelry, black folks went back to the same homes, the same jobs – albeit now paying jobs (hopefully), the same communities, the same churches.  There was no mass migration North or instant integration of schools or change in voting rights (that would all come later).  On the surface, life went on as usual.

But on the other hand, everything changed.  African Americans could no longer be treated as sub-human.  They had to be taken seriously.  They could not be ordered around, forced to work for nothing, beaten, whipped, or sold like chattel.  The biggest change was social: two groups of different skin tones now had to relate to each other differently.  Very differently.  Beyond the economics and the politics, two communities had to learn how to look at each other in a new way.

This would take time to figure out.  In many ways, it’s still being figured out.  My college roommate, a Georgia native, told me he was stunned when as a boy he was told his nanny, a dear African American woman who was in many ways closer to him than his own mother, could not join them at the social function they were invited to that weekend.  No good explanation was given.   He was upset, humiliated, and never forgave his parents’ for their racist social norms.  The slavery era was long over but they could not stop thinking of a demographic as sub-human.

Juneteenth is about embracing demographics that were formerly cut off from you socially and engaging them as equals.  What portion of society would feel awkward in your social circles: African Americans?  Another ethnic group?  Immigrants?  The disabled?  A member of the LGBTQ community?

As the President of the PTSA at Watkins Mill High School, it has been incumbent upon me to build bridges with the parents of the majority Hispanic student body.  I found out a group of Latin parents met monthly so I decided to attend.  Imagine being white and walking into a room full of Latino parents all speaking Spanish to each other.  It was intimidating and at first I felt very out of place.  But individual parents reached out to me, inviting me to sit with them, helping me understand what’s going on (I speak Spanish but I still miss a lot!), introducing me to their friends, engaging me in the group discussion, etc.  It was risky and I’ll never know how much their own connections with other parents may have been alienated by their alliance with me.  But over time, I have come to feel very much a part of, not apart from, this group, thanks to those who could see me as not an outsider but as an insider who looked a little different.

You can tell when your embrace of new demographics is getting real.  There are very tangible signs of social re-alignment:

  • ‘Us’ and ‘them’ lines get fuzzier; it’s harder to use the term ‘they’ when referring to different groups;
  • Old friends are put off by your choice of social engagement;
  • You find yourself straddling different friendship groups or creating hybrid ones;
  • You start getting defensive about people you have no blood relation to;
  • You are more uncomfortable in conversations within family/cultural circles;
  • You watch your own lifestyle change as you begin to frequent new places, enjoy new musical styles, eat new kinds of food, acquire new vocabulary.

When you think of freedom this Juneteenth, think of the freedom to walk into a room or a relationship and being greeted with a smile, a warm handshake, a pat on the back, a place to sit, a listening ear, attentive eyes, and most of all, favor.  The favor that says, “I’m glad you’re here.  I want you here.  I am not embarrassed by your presence.  Your presence is a net gain in my book.”

Don’t just celebrate freedom this year.  Offer it.

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