Juneteenth: Looking Back on Our Journey to Freedom (Dr. Anthony Stringer)

Just as bitterness heightens our ability to recognize what is truly sweet. Just as darkness gives us an appreciation of light. Just as the presence of evil affords us the power to discern what is good. So our passage through the bitter, the dark, the evil years of slavery, made us — America’s Africans, the quintessential seekers of freedom. And though we are here to celebrate, to lift up, the light of freedom, we must begin by acknowledging the darkness that came before — Looking back on our journey to freedom.

Only 58,000 Americans were killed in the Vietnam War. A mere 900,000 people lost their lives in the Civil War. It seems wrong, it seems insensitive to use words like “mere” or “only” when speaking of 900,000, or even 58,000 once living souls. But I am forced to. Though it turns my stomach, I am forced to say that a mere one and a half million Vietnamese lost their lives in the Vietnam War.

Only when we speak of the 20th century’s greatest evil–the Jewish Holocaust–do we exceed the number of lives lost during America’s slave trade. Three million Africans lost their lives before they even reached America’s shores. Add to this the conservatively estimated 11 million Africans who survived to live out their days in the most brutal system of slavery humankind ever imagined. I say conservatively estimated, because more radically-minded scholars are apt to put the number of enslaved Africans somewhere around 15 million.

Human beings just can’t comprehend numbers that large. You can’t picture 15 million or 11 million or even 3 million. The numbers are just too big. To help you understand the sheer number of people involved, if we took the 11 million enslaved Africans and the 3 million who died before they landed in America, if we took them and laid them end to end, their bodies would stretch completely around the earth 16 times.

This image may help you grasp the numbers, but it does not begin to speak to the pain. To the human suffering. For that, we must turn to the song. The truth of what lies in the African American soul is no where if not in our music. And it is here that we find the most poignant image of what was suffered—-the image of the child far from her mother’s arms and a long way from her home.

[Hymn: Motherless Child – verses 1 and 3]

A long way from home. A long way from the familiar. Far from the sights and sounds of the savannah and the rain forest. Far from the talk, the dance, the ritual, the gods that bound brother to sister to father to mother to village to tradition to ancestors to life to nature. A long way from home.

And what was this strange new religion that justified cruelty to the body in the interest salvation for the soul? What was this curse black people were said to bear for all eternity because the biblical Ham had looked upon his father Noah’s drunken nakedness? Who was this god who commanded obedience and submission to the master and the mistress? Listen to the words of the Right Reverend William Mead, Bishop to the Diocese of Virginia:

Some He hath made masters and mistresses…[and] some He hath made servants and slaves….Almighty God hath been pleased to make you slaves here, and to give you nothing but labour and poverty in this world, which you are obliged to submit to, as it is His will that it should be so. Your bodies, you know, are not your own; they are at the disposal of those you belong to.

So very far from home.

But this strange new religion was nothing if not full of contradictions. For while it said all this, it also said:

Come to me all that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.
Matthew 11:28

And its stories were not simply tales of the defeated and the downtrodden, but rather of the downtrodden risen up. Of the vanquished returning to fight yet again. Of the meek overcoming the mighty. Of righteousness prevailing. Of evil reaping its just and overdue reward.

Though the language of the Bible has always seemed to lend itself to being twisted and manipulated by charlatans, demagogues, and fools, its essential truth, its message of goodness and humanity, is never long disguised. The Right Reverend Mead had to do quite a bit of pirouetting to justify his bizarre interpretation of the Jewish and Christian traditions. But it did not take much of a leap for the slave to see a parallel to her own circumstances when she looked to the Bible. It did not take much imagination for the slave to put himself in the place of the oppressed Jew when he listened to the story of Israel in Egypt’s Land.

[Hymn: When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land – verses 1 and 4]

We need not always weep and moan and wear these slavery chains forlorn. Let my people go. It takes guts to preach that right under the slave master’s and the overseer’s watchful eyes. But that is exactly the message sermonized by the black plantation preachers, as they adopted Christianity, as they took this foreign male god and made him their own.

While the slave’s god was male, the slave’s Moses was not, though she was often referred to as The Old Man. While still in her 20s, Harriet Tubman left behind her home and her husband because she was determined to find her freedom. Her husband, John Tubman, was a rarity in the South. He was a free black man. And he was content with his own freedom. It did not matter that his wife was not free and was subject to be sold away from him at any time.

When threatened with being sold, Harriet Tubman struck out alone in search of her freedom. She walked alone at night for over a hundred miles. She was guided only by the North Star of the Big Dipper—or as it was known by the slaves—-the North Star of the Drinking Gourd. Tubman eventually reached Pennsylvania where she became a free woman. Unlike her husband, however, she was never content with just her own freedom. Though she never said it, in her heart she must have known that no one is free as long as someone is enslaved.

So Tubman returned to the slave states 15 times, helping some 300 slaves escape with her back to the North. Despite a $40,000 price on her head, she was never apprehended and never lost a man, a woman, or a child on the way to freedom. It was in song that this woman’s presence was surreptitiously announced on the plantation. And it is in song that this woman is best memorialized, this woman whom they affectionately called The Old Man, this woman of the Underground Railroad whom they reverently called the Conductor, this woman who was so like a Moses.

[Hymn – Follow the Drinking Gourd – all 3 verses]

There were many conductors along the Underground Railroad. Many liberators, black and white, in the Abolitionist Movement. Some names are familiar when we call them. Names like the politician and author Frederick Douglas, the orator Sojourner Truth, and the activist and publisher William Lloyd Garrison. Other names are not so familiar. Names like the black abolitionist orator Charles Lenox Remond and his sister Sarah Parker Remond who was both an anti-segregation activist and a black woman physician in days when even white women didn’t become doctors. And many important names are unknown. The names of the estimated 40 to 100 thousand fugitive men, women, and children who found their way to freedom have mostly not come down to us through history.

But as important as escape may have been. It was not enough. Some evils you can’t run from. Some evils you have to confront. And so it was, ultimately, with American slavery. The confrontation began with slave revolts. Though few are well documented, there were in fact hundreds of revolts of various sizes. These revolts were led by the likes of Gabriel Prosser — a black man who stood 6 feet – 2 inches tall and wore his hair long like his biblical idol Samson. He organized as many as 1,000 slaves in a revolt in the summer of 1800 which, had it not been for a sudden severe storm, would have captured Richmond, Virginia as it was defended only by 300 men with 30 muskets.

Revolts led by men like Denmark Vessey. Freed from slavery with money he won in a lottery, he nonetheless devoted his life to the cause of freedom for all African Americans. Inspired by Toussaint L’Overture’s black revolution in Haiti, Vessey organized a rebellion that involved 9,000 slaves in South Carolina. When this rebellion was betrayed and 130 of his co-conspirators were arrested, only one man broke under torture to betray Vessey. Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 panicked the entire state of Virginia. And later, the white militant abolitionist John Brown led a raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia that arguably helped spark the final conflagration — The Civil War itself.

In mentioning them, we must not forget that these were violent men. Men so desperate for their freedom that they were willing to kill indiscriminately. But they were also admirable in their courage and in their passion for freedom. At his trial, when asked to account for his actions, Gabriel Prosser answered:

I have nothing more to offer than what General Washington would have [said], had he been taken by the British and put to trial by them. I have [endeavored] to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice to their cause; and I beg, as a favor, that I may be immediately led to [my] execution.

[Hymn: Oh Freedom – all 3 verses]

Before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave. Take my life before you take my freedom. Liberty is just that dear.

We must not forget though, that we backed into liberty. Abraham Lincoln, that great emancipator, had to be dragged by circumstance, by political necessity, into doing the thing he is most remembered for. Lincoln believed that every slave in this country should be set free. Eventually. What turned eventuality into actuality was the secession of the slave states from the American union. Between 1860 to 1861 Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, Virginia, and Tennessee left the United States of America so that they could keep their slaves.

Though the North was in a far better position than the South to fight and win a war, many of the early victories went to the South. And there was the danger that the South would win foreign support. The slaves had to be freed to assure the North would win the war. “If I could save the Union,” Lincoln declared, “without freeing one slave, I would do it.” But he could not.

And so in September of 1862, Lincoln threatened to do the thing he hoped would not be necessary. He gave the South from September to January to call the whole war thing off or else he would declare the slaves of the rebel states free. No one knew, including Lincoln himself, whether he would make good on his threat. As late as December, Lincoln wavered. Waiting for his generals to decisively win a battle because, as his Secretary of State put it, he didn’t want freeing the slaves to appear to be “the last measure of an exhausted government. A cry for help. The government stretching forth its hand to Ethiopia, instead of Ethiopia stretching forth her hands to the government.”

It was unseemly for a white nation to need its colored folks. But need them it most certainly did. And not just to win a war. Not just to save a Union. But to save a Nation’s soul. To save a Nation’s humanity. Oppression always claims two victims. The oppressed and the oppressor. You can not brutalize, you can not put down another human being and not irrevocably corrupt your own soul. Oppression can make you rich, but its price is your humanity.

A society that brutalizes the African, can not help but oppress its women. A society that brutalizes the African, can not help but poison the environment. A society that brutalizes the African has no hope of raising its children to their fullest potential. A society that brutalizes the African can not even conceive of the possibility of there being differing sexual preferences. And that being okay. A society that brutalizes the African can not hope to create an enduring cultural legacy. It can be a rich society. It can not lay claim to being a civilized society.

When you listen to the words of the next hymn, We Shall Overcome, think about the We. Think about why it isn’t “They shall overcome,” or “We will help them overcome.” Think about why it’s “We shall overcome.” My freedom depends upon yours, just as your freedom depends upon mine.

[Hymn: We Shall Overcome – verses 1, 2, and 3]

On January 1st, 1863, Lincoln declared the slaves of the Confederate States forever free. And on January 31st, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery throughout all of the United States. America began the process of freeing its captive Africans and just as importantly began the process of freeing itself.

The welcome word of freedom was slow to spread. But wherever it spread, whenever it spread, freedom was celebrated. Word of their emancipation didn’t reach the slaves in Texas until June 19th, six months after the 13th Amendment passed. I suspect there are still some parts of Texas that haven’t gotten the word. But this is what we celebrate when we celebrate Juneteenth. Getting the message. Getting the welcome word.

Juneteenth is the oldest continuously celebrated African American holiday. Emancipation Day celebrations occur at different times in different parts of the country. January 1st in New York, Massachusetts, Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Maryland. February 1st in Philadelphia. May 8th in Mississippi. May 20th in Florida. June 19th in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and parts of Arkansas. August 4th in Missouri and Illinois. August 8th in Kentucky. September 22nd in Indiana and Ohio.

It doesn’t matter when it’s celebrated. Only that it is celebrated. Only that the history be remembered and passed on from generation to generation. We look back, though it is sometimes painful to do so. We look back, to honor those struggles that went on before us. We look back, so that we can move forward.

[Hymn: We Are Dancing Sarah’s Circle – verses 1-5]

Sarah’s circle is an ever widening circle.

[Reading #1: Women]

Sarah’s circle is an ever widening circle.

[Reading #2: The Sick and the Disabled]

Sarah’s circle is an ever widening circle.

[Reading #3: Men]

Sarah’s circle is an ever widening circle.

[Reading #4: Gays, Lesbians, and Bisexuals]

Sarah’s circle is an ever widening circle.

[Reading #5: Children]

Sarah’s circle is an ever widening circle.

[Reading #6: All Americans]

No one of us is free, until all of us are free. If there are any other freedoms you would like to proclaim, please come forward and do so now.

[All others]

Sarah’s circle is an ever widening circle. If there is anyone who has not joined the circle, please come and join us now as we sing together the closing hymn.

[Hymn #170: We Are a Gentle Angry People – all 6 verses]

Reading #1

I proclaim the right of women to be free of violence, sexual harassment, and the fear that they engender.

Reading #2

I proclaim the freedom of the sick and the disabled—-a freedom dependent upon access to health care based on need and not greed.

Reading #3

I proclaim the freedom of men to be strong when strength is called for and to be gentle when gentleness is needed.

Reading #4

I proclaim freedom of sexual preference for gays and lesbians.

Reading #5

I proclaim the right of children to be free of violence, abuse, neglect, hunger, and all else that would restrict their reaching their highest potential.

Reading #6

I proclaim freedom for all who share this land, whether by birthright, by willing immigration, or by forced immigration.