In the United States, words bring the real freedom


In mid-June, Lansing celebrated Juneteenth, and early next month comes the Fourth of July. I imagine I should discuss these events in the opposite order, chronologically by year, since the Declaration of Independence came in 1776, and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but June comes before July. So, when it comes to a celebration incorporating barbeque, marking the end of slavery comes before the founding of the country. It should have been that way all along.

But as it is, the United States first freed itself from an outside nation — and then freed the people inside our nation. These are our big identity holidays: Americans are free people: no longer colonialists, and no longer slaves, thanks to the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Declaration of Independence put England’s King George on notice that we are no longer your subjects. We are the United States of America. Deal with it.

The Emancipation Proclamation announced that Black people in the rebellious corners of the U.S. are free. Let my people go.

The very words connect directly to communication: the Declaration and the Proclamation. Juneteenth and the Fourth of July are communication holidays. They are announcements. Proclaiming and declaring is what we celebrate.

Some say actions are what matter.

In 1852, the great anti-slavery orator Frederick Douglass, a Black man freed from slavery, recognized publicly in his speech “What to a Slave is Your Fourth of July?” that the founding fathers were “brave” and “great men.” 

“What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction … .”

And etcetera.

Douglass said he had “better employments” than to argue this case. What he meant was it was better to use his voice to document the actions and to point out the irony of the Fourth of July. How you gonna have a free country practicing slavery? Hence the Proclamation.

Juneteenth marked a time warp.

Effective Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln’s proclamation covered the 10 Confederate states in rebellion against the United States of America. But in Texas, the westernmost Confederate state, people still needed to hear about it. That did not happen until June 19, 1865, two and one-half years later.  Two thousand federal soldiers rode into Galveston Bay to announce the proclamation where everybody could hear it, thereby setting the enslaved Black people of Texas free. 

In Lansing, we celebrated Juneteenth in mid-June. Though, there was another celebration in REO Town, I marched on June 15 in the westside parade with my Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters.

It was hot, sunny, with a middling degree of humidity. Several of my sisters held umbrellas over their heads. That’s what white women down South did with parasols to prevent their skin from turning dark. Today, these smaller umbrellas are a dermatologist-approved shield against the sun’s UV rays and the risk of cancer. 

During the parade, we Black women chanted our social action song of freedom. One chant was, “Delta Sigma Theta says we will vote, so Vote, Vote, Vote.”

We made a special effort to chant at places on the parade route where people had gathered to watch. Mindful of how dull is a parade with no sound — how disappointing when a silent band marches in front of you — we brought our chant back to life when we reached spectators. That’s the fun of a parade.

We followed behind the Civil War reenactors. While I normally love costumes, the authentic Union blue jackets made of scratchy, itchy, hot 19th-century wool failed to compete with the sounds. The soldiers stepped along the street pavement in stiff leather shoes like wooden Dutch clogs.  We were close enough to hear their hard heels clacking. 

Then loud and clear, the white smoke boom of history showered on us paper blown into confetti bits. The reenactors had fired. The crack of their guns split the air.

Everyone screamed, using their voices to testify that the fight for freedom had been real and serious.

We remembered Denzel Washington in the film “Glory.” It’s the story of Private Trip, a Black soldier in the U.S. Colored Troops 54th Regiment who was angry about having been enslaved, with the stripes on his back to show for that and the insult of being flogged again as a recalcitrant Union soldier complaining about being paid less than white soldiers, training with no uniforms, sometimes no shoes, and no weapons. Their first battle assignment was to take back Fort Sumpter on Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, an almost certain suicide mission.

The night before, Trip was urged to speak at a prayer meeting. He stumbled in his speech, which was just a few lines, but he was heard and inspiring when he said, “It ain’t much a matter what happens tomorrow, ‘cause we men, aint’ we? Ain’t we men?”

In 2024, speaking, making sounds, asking for what you want, praying, and communicating capture hearts and minds. Open and honest communication ushers in freedom. This is why Martin Luther King Jr. said to let freedom ring.

(Dedria Humphries Barker is the author of “Mother of Orphans: The True and Curious Story of Irish Alice, A Colored Man’s Widow.”)


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