Juneteenth, 2020

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Juneteenth, as I have written before, is about the gaps. Most obviously, the gap between the surrender of the pro-Slavery Rebellion in April of 1865 and the enslaved people in Galveston being told about it in June, but so many other gaps.

I have written about the gap between the American Dream and the American reality. The gap between a perception of occupation and the reality of privilege. The gap between the thought and the deed. The gap between my personal comfort and my knowledge of the world’s dangers. The gap between yesterday and today.

This year I have to write about something that the President of the United States is quoted as saying in the Wall Street Journal:

“I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous”, Mr. Trump said, referring to news coverage of the rally date. “It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.”

Mr. Trump said he polled many people around him, none of whom had heard of Juneteenth. Mr. Trump paused the interview to ask an aide if she had heard of Juneteenth, and she pointed out that the White House had issued a statement last year commemorating the day. Mr. Trump’s White House has put out statements on Juneteenth during each of his first three years.

The gap that has forced itself into my consciousness this year—into the national consciousness, really—is the gap between the lived experience of white Americans and Americans who are not white.

Here’s a goofy anecdote of my white blinkers: I was an office temp for much of the 90s, which meant a lot of meeting new bosses and making them comfortable with me sitting in their spaces for a few days, typing or filing or whatever, and I was pretty good (I think) at the small talk part of that. I never watched Seinfeld or Friends, not regularly. But I knew the names of the characters and the catchphrases, and I could have conversations that referenced them. I never knew the names of the characters or the catchphrases from Roc or The Steve Harvey Show or Moesha. Now, I didn’t deliberately study up on white sitcoms, but by watching some TV and reading the newspapers and generally living in white culture, I picked up that stuff—and not the other stuff. I don’t remember exactly how I became aware of that gulf, really, but I think the huge, huge success of The Kings of Comedy (I was playing the HSX box-office-prediction game and cared about the success of movies) might have had a lot to do with it.

There’s a sense in which sitcoms aren’t terribly important. It isn’t a big deal, really, that I am familiar with some of them, and that other people are familiar with different ones. Except that I was using my familiarity with white culture to succeed in the workplace, wasn’t I?

I not only grew up in white culture, but I grew up not really understanding that white culture was not the default for people who weren’t white. While I knew not everybody liked the things I liked (and I certainly didn’t like all the most popular things) I don’t remember ever having a conversation in my childhood with any kid who wasn’t interested in those things because they were white things. I don’t know how I would have responded to such a conversation… which may have something to do with why I never had one.

We’ve been talking a lot, recently, about the fact that we white Americans may be irritated when a police car drives up behind us, but we don’t fear for our lives. We know, deeply, that our lives matter, and that therefore if that life is taken, by a police officer or anyone else, that there will be consequences for it. We’ve been talking about how we can expect to jog in nice neighborhoods without getting shot; how we can break in to our own homes through the back door if we forget our keys without getting shot; how we can call the police to enforce our property rights without getting shot. We should be talking about that, and we should have been talking about that, and it’s vitally important. Sitcoms aren’t that important, no.

But still. I could talk the white small-talk. I grew up white (yes, Jewish, yes provisionally white, but white) in America, and I didn’t know about Juneteenth when I was a kid. That’s because of a cultural gap that is immense. I’ve had the privilege of ignoring Juneteenth every summer, if I want to, and I would not come off as hopelessly provincial among the people who have power and influence. The President of the United States can say that he had never heard of Juneteenth, that all the people he surrounds himself with are equally ignorant of that whole part of American culture, then go beyond that and describe the whole part of American culture that does observe Juneteenth as nobody.

This is a thing about the Juneteenth story: who is included in everybody and who is nobody, in the stories Americans tell ourselves about ourselves. Who is learning from who. Who is the subject of the American story—and who is nobody.

The great and ultimate irony of the Juneteenth story, of course, is General Granger telling the enslaved people of Galveston that they are free, yes, and there now existed absolute equality, and that they should go back to work for their former “owners” immediately. There’s something so powerfully, awfully American about that, isn’t there? And there’s something, to my ears at any rate, of that in the awful quote I typed out up there. There’s such a tremendous gap between what that story can mean to someone like Our Only President, or even to me, and what it can mean to someone who grew up black in America.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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