Happy Juneteenth from a Land Where Old Times Are Forgotten

Interesting story in The Dallas Morning News today by Selwyn Crawford about growing national popularity for Juneteenth, a holiday originally thought to be strictly a Texas thing. Juneteenth marks the official emancipation of slaves in Texas in 1865, two years after Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

My family just visited a part of the Old South, where we toured the home of a slave owner. Slavery was described by our tour guide in terms I took as morally neutral. The spiel focused on the wealth of the slave owner. In mid-19th century, steamy hot, coastal South Carolina, he could afford imported ice for his wine. The slave quarters were off-limits to visitors.

Crawford's piece accurately describes a debate over Juneteenth as strictly a black thing. Should Juneteenth be the big holiday, or does that overshadow and diminish the importance of Lincoln's historic proclamation?

I never have visited the Nazi death camps in Europe. I will someday. But I have read about the tours and watched films of them. My unmistakable impression of those tours is that the words spoken and sights seen all convey a mood of powerful solemnity, grief and, yes, horror, nothing like the tight-lipped neutrality I picked up in our tour of a slave owner's grand home.

As I say, the debate over Juneteenth is interesting. But it's black. For me, the question of how black people feel about slavery is less interesting than how white people feel. That's what I want to know.

On my Kindle some time ago I downloaded an abridged edition of Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery, compiled from 2,300 first-person accounts of former slaves interviewed in the 1930s by writers working for the U.S. Works Progress Administration under the direction of the famous folklorist Alan Lomax. I used that archive a long time ago for a book I was working on. I put it on my Kindle a year or so ago because it was a free download.

The slave narratives are compelling and convincing because the accounts are widely varied. Some former slaves describe horrific events and circumstances, but some say their treatment wasn't all that bad. And the narratives also are convincing because certain themes are incredibly consistent across 2,300 interviews.

One of those consistent themes is a particular kind of depravity that owning another human being can bring about in the so-called owner. After all, it was this depravity of whites that inspired the first white abolitionists. The Grimke sisters of South Carolina, for example, were driven to the cause by the animalistic cruelty of whites that they witnessed on their own family plantation.

You could say that the Grimke sisters were driven more by their concern for the white soul than compassion for the slaves. Maybe that's what I found missing in that house we toured. Anyway, here is an excerpt from the narratives, describing an event not unlike many others remembered by the former slaves:

I's Aunt Mary, all right, but you all has to 'scuse me if I don't talk so good, 'cause I's been feelin' poorly for a spell and I ain't so young no more. Law me, when I think back what I used to do, and now it's all I can do to hobble 'round a little. Why Miss Olivia, my mistress, used to put a glass plumb full of water on my head and then have me waltz 'round the room, and I'd dance so smoothlike, I don't spill nary drap.

That was in St. Louis, where I's born. You see, my mamma belong to old Williams Cleveland and old Polly Cleveland, and they was the meanest two white folks what ever lived, 'cause they was allus beatin' on their slaves. I know, 'cause mamma told me, and I hears about it other places, and besides old Polly, she was a Polly devil if there ever was one, and she whipped my little sister what was only 9 months old and jes' a baby to death. She come and took the diaper offen my little sister and whipped till the blood jes' ran -- jes' cause she cry like all babies do, and it kilt my sister. I never forgot that, but I sot some even with that old Polly devil, and it's this-a-way.

You see, I's 'bout 10 year old and I belongs to Miss Olivia, what was that old Polly's daughter, and one day old Polly devil comes to where Miss Olivia lives after she marries, and tries to give me a lick out in the yard, and I picks up a rock 'bout as big as half your fist and hits her right in the eye and busted the eyeball, and tells her that's for whippin' my baby sister to death. You could hear her holler for five miles, but Miss Olivia, when I tells her, says, 'Well, I guess mamma has larnt her lesson at last.'

One wonders.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze