The trauma of slavery haunts America. We can help heal by making Juneteenth a holiday

·3 min read

On Juneteenth, hundreds will once again walk two and a half miles with Fort Worth luminary Opal Lee, “the Grandmother of Juneteenth,” to commemorate the two and a half years it took for word of the Emancipation Proclamation to arrive on Galveston Island on June 19, 1865.

I will be walking with Ms. Opal this year. And though I myself am a white descendant of slave owners, I join her in saying Juneteenth ought to be a U.S. federal holiday. It is time that a day be set aside to permanently commemorate the end of the Civil War, emancipation and freedom for everyone.

Official federal recognition of Juneteenth would underscore the import of emancipation, honor those who fought for it, and reaffirm the guarantees of federal protection that Abraham Lincoln pledged to freed Blacks and their descendants.

The end of the war should have assured Blacks greater opportunities in both the South and the North. But 100 years of economic subjugation and segregation kept the old system in force. The promises of Lincoln’s proclamation were broken.

A national celebration of Juneteenth would recognize all that Blacks have had to endure, and mark the federal government’s renewed commitment to the promise of what the proclamation called “actual freedom.”

But the promise of Juneteenth is not just for Black Americans. It’s for every American. And, to borrow another phrase from Lincoln, it is what is necessary to “bind up the nation’s wounds.”

The recent work of social psychologists such as Resmaa Menakem demonstrates the deep, spiritual wounds our nation bears because of generations-long racial trauma. While many recognize that this violence did untold harm to the bodies and psyches of Black and brown people, what is often unrecognized is the harm it also did to the souls of white folks. Violence harms both the victim and victimizer.

Genetic and epigenetic research shows violence also affects the children and children’s children of both the victim and victimizer as well. As the ancient proverb says: “The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

Generations of Americans harmed others or were harmed through racialized terror and trauma. Until we begin to more publicly account for and repent of that harm, its shame, guilt, and consequences will continue to haunt us.

Research shows that occasions of ritual observance can be helpful in healing the effects of trauma. Juneteenth could and should be the ritual occasion for such healing to take place. It should be a day of healing for us all.

My church, Broadway Baptist, hosted the 18th Annual Juneteenth Ecumenical Prayer Service this month in partnership with Ms. Opal and her organization, Unity Unlimited. I gave an address inspired by Frederick Douglass’s famous 1852 speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” It was titled, “What to the Son of the Slave Master Is Juneteenth?” As the descendent of slave owners, my answer is that Juneteenth is a symbol of freedom for me, too.

The movement to make Juneteenth a federal holiday is growing nationally. With her nationwide walks, Ms. Opal is Juneteenth’s greatest champion. At age 94, she has a vision for a festival of freedom to run from June 19th through July 4th across the country.

Would that Ms. Opal will live long enough to see that vision come to pass. Would that we all.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “No one is free until we are all free.” Juneteenth is about Black freedom. It’s about white freedom.

Juneteenth is about freedom for all. And we can’t have the Fourth of July without it.

The Rev. Ryon Price is senior pastor at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth.