Juneteenth resonates with triumph, pain, past and present

The woman who opened the door brandished a hammer in one hand and a pickaxe in the other.

Jamila Michener thought she had the right address a few years ago when she brought her two sons, then ages 8 and 5, to a children’s birthday party in Ithaca. When they knocked on the front door, no one answered for a while. A woman appeared briefly and then returned a few minutes later, brandishing the tools as weapons. She spat: “What you want to?”

“I thought it was a children’s birthday party,” Michener said. “This is clearly not the case. I apologize. I am leaving your property now.

The woman continued to brandish their guns as Michener and his boys backed up, got into their car and drove off.

The first thing her oldest son said was, “Mom, why would she treat us like that? We are just children.

“Buddy, I don’t know. I don’t know what was in the heart and mind of this woman, ”Michener said. “But I think there’s a good chance she would have reacted differently if it hadn’t been for black people outside her house.”

It’s the kind of incident Michener, associate professor of government at the College of Arts and Sciences, remembers when she thinks of Juneteenth – a holiday celebrated on June 19 to commemorate the day in 1865 when the last slaves in the States -Unis have learned that they have been released. .

They had the freedom, but not the social and political power they needed to influence their way of life, and these sons continue to run through American society today, Michener says. They appear in national policies on criminal justice, housing and health care, to name a few, which marginalize people of color.

“There are times of triumph where I say, ‘Wow, my kids can have a great life.’ We live in a good neighborhood, they are comfortable, ”says Michener. “And there are times of pain, because we still can’t live without thinking. We cannot forget that we do not belong. This is the story of the black experience in the United States.

An expert on poverty, racial inequity, and public policy in the United States, Michener teaches her students that racial and ethnic categories are not biological, but have been developed through political, economic, and social processes.

These categories do not take into account the enormous variety of backgrounds and backgrounds of those classified in these categories.

For example, Juneteenth is not directly part of the historical line of Michener in the United States. Her parents immigrated from the Caribbean and knew little about U.S. history when they arrived in the 1970s. But as a U.S.-born black person, Michener says longtime role models reflected in Juneteenth have shaped her life and her trajectory, and they will shape the life and trajectories of her children. This is one of the reasons she tells her children about Juneteenth. “I want them to understand the story, I want them to get a feel for it.”

She thinks what it must have been like that day for the slaves to hear that suddenly they were free. “What a moment of triumph and what a feeling it must have been,” she said. But then they had to figure out how to live in a society that was not built for them as a free people – how to have a roof over their heads, how to feed their children. This dilemma opened the door to systems of exploitation like sharecropping, and the systems of social and political segregation that followed, she said.

“There was no place for you in the economy, in society, in politics, and it took literally hundreds of years for black people in this country to keep trying to carve out that place.”

Michener points to the constant flow of blacks killed by the police, the conversations she must have with her sons.

She and her family recently went to an outdoor barbecue at a friend’s house in an unfamiliar neighborhood, where no one knew her family. So when her son asked for the car keys to get something from their car parked on the street, her husband asked her a specific question: “Do you remember who you are? “

“I know, I’m a dark kid,” the boy replied. “I’m not going to do anything stupid. I can’t look like I’m stealing the car, I can’t look like I’m causing trouble, I can’t look out of place.

Her son is 11 years old.

She and her husband have been teaching him these lessons since he was 4 years old. “Over the years people have said ‘Oh my God, how can you say that to your four year old?’ But it’s literally life and death, ”she said. “They need to know.”

Now when they go to an unfamiliar house he says, “Are you sure this is the right address, Mom?” He never wants to risk going to the wrong house by accident, she said. “As he gets older he realizes that the bigger he gets, the bigger he gets, the more dangerous he is and a threat to people. I wish it was a weight he didn’t have to carry.

His research found that even policies designed to help people of color on the economic fringes – such as Medicaid and housing policies – often end up marginalizing them further by limiting their power. Michener is a huge Medicaid fan, she says. “But the process of obtaining such benefits is often racialized, it’s often alienating, it’s often stigmatizing, especially for people of color,” she says. “You have very limited power that you can exercise under these circumstances. “

For her, this connects directly to Juneteenth. “You are free,” Michener says, “but what is freedom without the ability to exert power and influence over the outcome of your life? It is really a very constrained freedom.

The present, of course, is very different. She herself is a prime example of progress, a black woman and the daughter of immigrants who is now a professor at an Ivy League institution, she says. Black people are able to wield power in many ways – as they and others have done especially in 2020, Michener says, through the most massive protests in response to racial violence ever seen in the history of this country.

But even that power is often limited by our political institutions and public policies and how they work, she says, because they are not built in a way that truly cultivates power among groups of people who traditionally don’t have it.

“It was true on June 19, 1865,” she said. “And it’s true now, in different ways, for different reasons. The processes have changed, things certainly look different. I wouldn’t want to pretend otherwise. But there are themes and threads that have remained consistent throughout. “

On June 19, she will celebrate Juneteenth with a barbecue with some friends and family. She will make her boys wear special Juneteenth t-shirts.

“They really appreciate the story and its connection to us as black people,” she says. “We wouldn’t want to celebrate it.”


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