This post is part of a series on Juneteenth. Go to the series LEAD POST.
The video below shows a few minutes of Aurora, Illinois’ 2023 Juneteenth celebration at MLK Jr. Park. It’s one of the oldest in the state (at 33 years Rockford’s owns the crown). “It’s been going 22 years,” said Congressman Bill Foster during his annual drop-in. “My smile muscles are almost broken.” “So are mine,” said our luminous emcee, whose name I again didn’t catch but am on a mission to find before next year’s celebration. The last shot of the video is of him from behind, so you can read his t-shirt: “I’m steal healing b.u.”
Well, he literally was, as he wore a big brace on his left leg, a brace that didn’t stop him dancing all around during his energetic hosting. The emphasis on healing, though, is symbolic of a larger emphasis growing in importance to the Black community. One speaker you’ll see urged the crowd to become aware of themselves as a people again. “We’ve lost that,” he said, and in an inventive metaphor asked, “If the bear feeds the bear, does the bear hate the lion?” He was urging Blacks not only to love each other but spend with each other, support each other economically. That’s what whites do, why not us?
His short talk blended perfectly with the next person on stage, a young lady who did a dramatic dance to Cynthia Erivo’s “Stand Up,” the theme song for Kasi Lemmons’ movie Harriet. “Look at this,” said our emcee. “She could have said I’m gonna do some Cardi B. Instead she’s lifting up Harriet Tubman!”
A few acts later, up come three kids doing the latest dance, until the emcee asks, “Any body else can do this? Come up here!” Suddenly the stage is exploding with dancers. I said to my daughter-in-law, Desiree, “Doesn’t it make your knees hurt just watching them?” So this emphasis on supporting each other economically and celebrating the great figures of freedom like Harriet Tubman was, as usual, wrapped in fun, and food, and the market atmosphere of dozens of merchant’s tents, plus the cars and motorcycles that showed up for the parade that would end off the evening.
I’m writing this just as the big parades celebrating pride month are coming to an end, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the lessons the LGBTQ+ community can teach us about keeping the issue of race before the American public. Though that community is suffering lots of backlash currently, and over 600 bills have been proposed in legislatures nation-wide to curb that community, the LGBTQ+ movement has seemed to turn a corner. The general American public seems supportive—enthusiastically so in many cases—and ready to advocate for them. In my church’s JEDI group (Justice-Equity-Diversity-Inclusion), there’s been so much progress on LGBTQ+ issues. It’s much harder in matters of race. For all the troubles LGBTQ+ people have suffered, and continue to suffer, it’s just easier for that movement. There are many reasons for this, I believe. Here are just four: 1) people can inherently relate to sexuality more than race; 2) the bulk of that community—at least the out-front parts—are white; 3) Pride celebrations are just more fun, making the issue of inclusion easier to get behind; and 4) there’s more of a tradition of therapy in that population. Only in the last 25 years or so has there been a growing, widespread acknowledgment of the mental health crisis—the trauma—caused by racism.* And racism is woven so deeply into the fabric of American life that it’s hard to get to, and the tasks to change systems are often of gigantic proportions.
But at this year’s Juneteenth celebration in Aurora, I thought that maybe this holiday might be one of the things that helps more and more Americans embrace the fight against racism as much as the celebrations of Pride Month have helped that community. I’m deep in thought about that, and maybe my hope might someday grow deeper as well.