Juneteenth: Looking Back On Our Journey to Freedom

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.

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,

sometimes I feel like a motherless child,

a long way from home,

a long way from home….

Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone, sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone, sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone, a long way from home, a long way from home.1

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.

1Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” From Singing the Living Tradition, Hymn #97.