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This Juneteenth

By Lydia Holt 

You can’t talk about Juneteenth without first talking about the Emancipation Proclamation. Abraham Lincoln was primarily looking to “stick it” to the South by signing this document. It proclaimed all slaves in the rebelling states free. Read more...

Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and the Government's Response

By Sheryl Wright

Bradley Manning, the army private accused of releasing government documents to WikiLeaks, is facing 22 additional charges, including "aiding the enemy...through indirect means.” I agree with those quoted in the article who believe that this particular charge is setting up a dangerous precedent.

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Roundtable: America—Sweden’s Sweatshop

Sheryl: In a bit of irony, the U.S. is developing an unexpected reputation within the corporate world. Recent stories about an Ikea plant in Virginia indicate the United States—much like Bangladesh, Vietnam, China, and Honduras—is now seen as a preferred destination for corporations in search of lower production costs. Read more...

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Entries in family (2)

Sunday
Jul032011

Freedpeople Rising: Models of Engaged Citizenship

By Sheryl Wright

On Independence Day, we commemorate the nation’s declaration of independence from British rule. In our celebration of the nation’s birth and the personal freedoms and liberties we have as American citizens, we give very little consideration to the former slaves who played an important role in ensuring the bestowal of these freedoms and liberties upon all Americans.

Margarita "Peggy" Best (October 10, 1841 - April 13, 1922)My great-great grandmother, Margarita “Peggy” Best, lived through Reconstruction. Born into slavery, she acquired 150 acres of land that was once part of the plantation in South Carolina that she had lived and worked on as a slave for most of her 22 years of life before she was emancipated. The land proved to be a source of sustenance for Peggy as she worked to provide for her eight children, seven of whom were fathered by her former master. Her desire to obtain an education for her children was so great that she purchased a mule and buggy so that they would be able to attend a school 29 miles away. She is but one example of the many former slaves who, through their determination to make a better life for themselves and their families, helped to establish what historian Eric Foner referred to as “…the social and political agenda of Reconstruction.”

Despite lifetimes spent under the hateful glare of the often brutal masters and their overseers, the freedmen and women enthusiastically embraced freedom, providing models for what it can mean to be engaged citizens; as Foner explains, they exercised their right to vote, ran for elected office, fought to strengthen their families, and labored to uplift their communities. The former slaves created many of the religious, educational, and political institutions that helped to pave the way for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s all while facing tremendous hostility from the Ku Klux Klan and the other terrorist organizations, which ran rampant during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era.

As a result of the Reconstruction amendments which includes the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the 19th Amendment (granting women the right to vote), and the freedmen’s struggle to gain civil and political rights, all people born in this country today are entitled to all of the rights and privileges associated with being a citizen simply by virtue of being born on American soil. There are no other requirements at the time of birth, and there is nothing more required in the future, with the exception of obeying the law and paying taxes.

My life experiences have led me to believe that being a proactive citizen is a personal responsibility and obligation. As a child, I was captivated by stories of black people’s struggle for equality in this country. I loved learning about the extraordinary efforts of my lesser known relatives as well as people like Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. In college, I was an active member of our Black Students’ Union. I participated in the protests in support of divestment from South Africa and in meetings and smaller protests related to other issues of concern to students on our campus and on other college campuses in the area. I believed my voice could make a difference.

After graduating from college, I settled into life as a disengaged citizen for more years than I care to admit. I didn’t vote for seven years. Looking back on that time, I realize that I disconnected from the power I have as a citizen to make a difference—power that we all have as citizens. The power exemplified in the stories that inspired me as a child. I whined about how my vote wouldn’t make a difference. In some way, I was right. By itself, voting wasn’t enough. I don’t recall what the seminal moment was for me, but I somehow realized I had no right to continue to sit on the sidelines and complain. I knew I had to put up or shut up. Committed citizenship involves taking action in our everyday lives to improve our communities and our nation. Voting is an integral part of being active, but showing up to vote once every two or four years is the very least that any citizen can do.

The founding principles of this country are awe-inspiring. Several months ago, I visited the National Constitution Center. The museum had been on my list of places to visit since its opening in 2003. During “Freedom Rising,” the theatrical performance which is a part of the museum’s core exhibit, my eyes filled with tears as the actor recounted the role the Constitution played in black people’s struggle for equality. I literally get chills when I think about the promise of this country. When I remember the efforts of the freedmen and women, I am reminded of our capacity as citizens to make right the country’s wrongs; the responsibility and obligation of engaged citizenship becomes an even more precious gift.

We the People

Read more on ways to be engaged. 

Saturday
Jun182011

This Juneteenth

By Lydia Holt


My great-grandfather, Isaiah P. Baker (standing), his father James Baker, and step mother, who were born slaves in Texas.You can’t talk about Juneteenth without first talking about the Emancipation Proclamation. Abraham Lincoln was primarily looking to “stick it” to the South by signing this document. It proclaimed all slaves in the rebelling states free. However, if you were a slave in Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware (Union states) and Tennessee or any of a number of exempt counties and cities, you were sure out of luck until the abolishment of slavery with the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution on December 18, 1865. Of course most of the slaves in Texas didn’t know any of this had been going on until good old Union General Gordon Granger came to Galveston, Texas, and read out loud General Order Number 3 on June 19, 1865, informing the slaves of Texas that they were free. And so Juneteenth was born.

There’s a scene from the film version of The Color Purple (no, not the “You told Harpo to beat me!” scene, but another) that I think of every Juneteenth. Shug Avery is visiting Celie and Mister and sees her father’s carriage coming down the road. She runs out to the fence separating the yard from the dirt road, holding up her left hand now resplendent with a wedding band, and yells, “I’s married now! I say I’s married now!” Her father whips the horses into a gallop, rushing past his daughter, a scowl of disapproval on his face. Being a Texan, I like to call my family on Juneteenth, and when I call my big sister, I cheerfully say, “I say we’s free now!”

Just as Shug imagined she would be legitimized, in her father’s eyes, by becoming a married woman, my ancestors believed emancipation would lead to their recognition as full-fledged citizens. It did not. We, as black Americans, have certainly been disheartened by the disapproving scowl of white supremacy embodied by the planters, the overseers and Jim Crow, but we carry on. The way to full-fledged citizenship has been paved for me by Freedom Riders, marchers on Washington, and my great-grandmother refusing to leave the ventilated, whites-only waiting room of a train station on a sweltering hot Texas day. (Luckily, the train arrived before the police did.) It is because of them that I can call my sister and half-jokingly say, “I say we’s free now!” and it be a truer statement than ever before.

Growing up, we never did anything special on Juneteenth. No red soda water, no purple drink, no barbecue in the park, no parade. My mother told me that when her father was working at the cottonseed oil refinery, back in the early 20th century, the workers didn’t get the Fourth of July off. Since most of the workers were black, the refinery owner decided to give the workers Juneteenth off instead. The Fourth of July is a celebration of a free and independent country. Juneteenth is the celebration of this free and independent country allowing black people on the freedom train. Yes, we were confined to the back, but at least we were on the train, instead of running on the human-sized hamster wheels that power the train. Sure, it took 89 years (from the Declaration of Independence to the Emancipation Proclamation), but “We’s free now!”

Now we’re legitimate members of American society, free to openly participate in its democracy and yet many of us are reluctant to do so. We think it doesn’t really matter or our voices won’t be heard. I must admit that I too feel this way sometimes. The only time that I ever felt like my vote was really making a difference was during the 2008 presidential election. I stood in line with hundreds of people just before 6 o’clock in the morning, anxious to cast my vote for Barack Obama. I thought I was getting to the polls early, but when I neared the middle school that was my polling station, I found the line already winding out of the building and onto the sidewalk. Once I was in line, it began to grow down the sidewalk and snake its way around the corner. There was a buzz of excitement in the air. People whipped out their phones, chatting and texting excitedly. When a middle-aged black woman strode out of the building and announced she had been the first to cast her vote, a cheer went up from the line of eager voters.

The next election day was not nearly as exciting. I wasn’t helping make history; I was just voting for the same old people who were part of the same old political machine. It’s on those kinds of election days that I have to remember Juneteenth and the struggle of  the civil rights movement. I have the luxury of grumbling about getting up early to get to the polls and am thankful for it.

I still have yet to go to a Juneteenth parade or picnic or any other formal celebration, but I’ve often pondered purchasing a copy of “Unchained Memories: Readings From the Slave Narratives” (HBO/Library of Congress) as well as some documentaries on the civil rights movement. I’ll show them to my two sons when they’re old enough to understand and when they’re being moody, obnoxious teenagers. I will sit them down and make them watch, listen, and see what their lives could have been like. I will remind them and I will remind myself that we have much to be grateful for.

“I say we’s free now!” So what shall we do with this freedom? I say, all that we can to preserve freedom and continue to fight for equality for all.