Commentary: Juneteenth: “I Should Be Happy Today But I’m Not”

By Chief Ralph L. Godbee, Jr. (retired)


Juneteenth is a sober reminder of the history of the United States of America and is a stark reminder that amongst its original sins are first the genocide perpetrated on indigenous peoples native to this continent that we call North America and secondly, the active and government-sanctioned enslavement of West-Africans as the Americas were participants in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade; that over the course of nearly four centuries saw 10-12 million Africans bought and sold as chattel in one of world history’s most egregious atrocities. My reflections come on the heels of an overwhelming bipartisan and bicameral-approved bill awaiting the signature of President Joseph R. Biden to make Juneteenth a nationally recognized federal holiday. I should be happy that the country is creating a line of demarcation in the sands of time that recognizes the last vestiges of government ordained enslavement of black Americans codifying in fact that African Americans are no longer legally deemed to be the property of slave owners being denied their God-given humanity that should be the minimum expectation afforded to every person on this planet regardless of race, religious beliefs, gender, gender preference or color. I should be happy as a black man that a national holiday which causes the nation to pause from its normal day to day routine and acknowledge that on June 19, 1865, more than two years post the Emancipation Proclamation Union Soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to appraise the residents that slavery had been abolished.

As the history is told there were celebrations, prayers, exhortations in song and dance, feasting, and the like to celebrate the answered prayers of the enslaved to finally be “free”. I want to feel hopeful and optimistic at the news of Juneteenth, a national holiday as recognized by the government of the United States of America, my country; finally addressing forthrightly its sin that in one of eternities greatest ironies defied the very aspirational values the framers of the United States Constitution codified yet did so with the implicit belief that the country’s guiding principles did not apply to persons of African descent; yet when the words of this document were married to the deeds of moral men and women; these words became the very words that affirm my existence as an American citizen. The words that read in part taken from the Declaration of Independence that were not written explicitly for me but reaffirm me as a United States citizen read as such, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I should be happy today, but the nightmarish reality is I am not as a matter of fact I am disgusted today. Disgusted not necessarily that Juneteenth is now a federally recognized national holiday; no, my disgust is shrouded in the visible regression we as a country have made in creating an equitable society wherein the level of melanin in one’s skin and the zip code where one lives is not predeterminate of one’s ability to thrive in what is espoused to be the greatest democratic experiment in world history. I am disgusted to get the consolation prize of a day off work before I can receive a day off work to exercise my constitutional right to vote in a free and fair election. I am disgusted to know that there is federal legislation that is not moving and arguably will languish in the abyss that could reaffirm these rights under the weight of states like Texas, Florida, Arizona and the like doing everything in their power to recreate Jim Crow voting conditions. As a country we are artfully skilled wording away from poll taxes and guessing the number of gumballs in a gumball dispenser. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act languishes. House resolution 1 (HR1), “The for the people act” that would thwart the regressive efforts of those that would attempt to suppress the black vote and that would take the dark money out of the equation that funds these efforts is no more than a glorified paper weight. Yet, I have an extra day off to “celebrate” perceived freedom.

State legislatures outlaw critical race theory curriculums across the country, which ironically would not allow a teacher to teach about Juneteenth. We watch in utter disbelief as right-wing extremists and white supremacists deny that there was an attempted coup on the United States government on January 6, 2021, one we literally witnessed happen on live television; yet the only consensus our legislators can reach from a prioritization standpoint is an additional day off. I am disgusted to know that after watching George Floyd murdered on tape in the most horrific nine minutes and thirty seconds, I have seen in a 35-year career in law enforcement; we are no closer to substantive police reform than we were when he was murdered by Derek Chauvin. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act has yet to be passed. I should be happy today, but I am not. No more platitudes from congress we need results. Oh yeah, Happy Juneteenth!

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