Community Column: Racial injustices and the importance of Juneteenth

Special Column

Katie Green, The Plain and Simple Correspondent

Editors Note: Community Columns are meant to provide a space for public figures, members of the public or other public staff to share ideas and opinions. Community Columns are submitted to Valley Sentinel.

We had our own homegrown Juneteenth celebration here in Plain last weekend, in a village known more for its homogeneity than diversity. The party in our neighborhood was ostensibly a birthday party for a one-year-old, but it was charming and inspiring in its inclusion of a wide variety of ages, races, and genders. This was no bacchanal, but what one Gilbert & Sullivan operetta termed “innocent merriment.” Nubile nymphs in scanty swimming apparel and uninhibited young lads, neither group pretending to be anything but kids, partook exuberantly of a long waterslide down a steep hill and there were wading pools for the tots. Oldsters looked on — probably, like me, remembering the larks of their flaming youths. I didn’t overhear anyone talking politics, religion, or philosophy, but in that crowd, while there may well have been a wide range to choose from in contentious categories, the dominant mood was calm and unruffled, good spirit and soul. Possibly the generous potluck and little or no alcohol helped keep friction under wraps, if there was any, and established a feeling of wellbeing and amity. Would that we had the opportunity for many more such gatherings that are joyfully, conspicuously inclusive here, there, and everywhere.

During the afternoon I talked briefly with my brother in the Central Valley of California, an area generally quite conservative, but he was in the midst of a much larger, much noisier Juneteenth gathering sponsored by his city in a park. He and his wife were taking a stint handing out information at a booth representing the local Prostate Cancer Support Group. He told me the turnout was more than twice as large this year as last, a good sign, in his estimation. The agricultural workers of his area – Latino, Filipino, Hmong, and a dozen other immigrant groups as well as First Peoples and low income native-born Whites who are capable of – driven to – doing such difficult, often dangerous work– call the Central Valley home. All can relate to Juneteenth as a time to commemorate the throwing off of shackles. They, too, for generations past (and too often in the present) have been swindled by those in charge, who conveniently concluded their workforce was not worthy to be respected, well compensated for their labors with a living wage and safe working conditions, only worthy to be exploited for commercial gain. This sounds like a stereotype, but I personally experienced it when young, gleaning cotton, picking strawberries and other stoop labor row crops.

The process of accepting true assimilation and laying aside ancient enmities is very hard for some, including myself. I am on the list for periodic articles from The Smithsonian archives and I just read one about heroic American individuals, military and civilians, who survived Japanese POW camps and the so-called Bataan Death March during WW II. The amazing, heart-rending stories were applauded by many readers who responded with emotional messages of support and/or by contributing stories of their own. At first the responses were positive in nature, but eventually the conversation degenerated into name calling. Slurs aimed at Asians here, now, and forever, fears expressed by white males that they were being displaced and were now the victims, accusations and counter-accusations of bigotry, etc. Despairing, I closed down the site. I have witnessed this inability to discuss any topic civilly on other social media platforms, as you no doubt have, too. It seems to be in the DNA – think Cain and Abel, the bloodthirsty Greek myths, all the oral and written records going back to Year One. People ganging up on one another from some sense of internal emptiness and projected or real hurt.

My prayer, as Juneteenth becomes a national holiday, is that holding up the injustices of the past that it represents will help us all move forward toward a better, more equitable day for everyone. And lots of innocent merriment.