It’s been a strange few weeks, and there are many better equipped people to be talking about this! If you don’t have much time or mental space, just stop reading this and go become a Patreon member at First Name Basis or follow Equal Justice Initiative and read their stuff! But writing has always been how I put things together, and maybe it will help someone.
My family is from Texas, my mom actually grew up near Galveston, and I have vague recollections of being told about Juneteenth and why it is important. But living in South Africa, we never celebrated it (although we did celebrate Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July with our American friends).
These past few weeks, we’ve seen statues of confederate generals coming down, and calls to include Juneteenth as a national holiday at the same time that people have also been advocating for an end to police violence and full scale criminal justice reform. The Equal Justice Initiative has been advocating for an American version of Truth and Reconciliation Commission to talk about the history of terror that has been visited on black people in America from enslavement to lynching to incarceration. Meanwhile there is a push towards discussion of reparations at the national governmental level.
On the one hand, taking down statues and making public holidays seems kind of like “window dressing” when compared to abolishing the police or ending mass incarceration. Like, are we going to take down some statues, declare some national holidays and call it all good? Hopefully, hopefully not. If I’m honest, though, there is also a part of me that feels uncomfortable about Juneteenth as a white person. Yes, it’s celebrating the end of enslavement for so many people, but it also highlights the fact that there were enslavers. Explaining to my white three year old why we are having strawberry lemonade and red velvet cake feels way more complicated than explaining why we are having sugar covered sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving (of course, it’s shouldn’t be, but that’s another post).
But then I remind myself, that I’m already doing this. In South Africa, we just celebrated Youth Day. It’s a public holiday- no work, no school. We remember the youth of South Africa in 1976 who protested against the apartheid government for the right to education. They took to the streets, and children were injured. Children were killed. Police violence at its height. It made headlines. It “woke” some people. It was still many years until our first democratic election in 1994. It is in no ways a “happy” day to remember. It wasn’t a memory of a victory. But it was a memory of resistance, and a memory that needed to be mourned.
And so, when our first democratic government had power, one of their tasks, along with the constitution, was to come up with a way to have a shared history for our country. The Truth And Reconciliation commission gets a LOT of flak in South Africa these days for being ineffective. It was ineffective at reparations and convictions of crime. Almost thirty years on, we still have massive economic inequality on racial lines and many feel the TRC was just to make white people feel they had “done something” so they didn’t need to take the next step to restitution.
But, for all its flaws, I think it was pretty effective at helping us come up with a shared narrative for our history. Most of us agree what happened. Eight years after the TRC, I was taught from the South African national syllabus a very robust condemnation of apartheid. I was taught about the human rights violations, about the massacres and deaths, about forced removals and the Bantu Education Act, which denied black people access to quality education. People might argue and complain about the details, or where we go from here, but at least we have a basic agreement on the essentials of what happened. The conversation is in the same universe.
Our government also had the task of taking moments from history that had previously been celebrated, and reworking them into a new narrative.
They erected new statues next to the old colonial ones. Sometimes they removed the old ones, sometimes they just built much, much bigger ones of newer heroes to dwarf the old ones. They built new museums. They created a new national anthem. They re-named streets to be for apartheid activists, rather than colonial or apartheid heroes.
And they gave us new public holidays. Now, as a nation, we remember the women who marched to parliament to protest pass laws on Women’s Day. We remember the youth who marched for education and died on Youth Day. We remember the Sharpville Massacre every year on Human Rights Day. And sure, for some it’s just a day off. But even then, even if I have no traditions, I have to answer the “Why?” question.
“Mommy, why doesn’t Daddy have to work today?” “It’s Youth Day.” “What’s Youth Day?” “Uhh, so remember we were talking about melanin and how some people have more and their skin is more brown? Well, youth day is a day that …. hmm…grown ups with skin like ours were being bad and saying that people with brown skin were not allowed to learn and have books they could read. Is that right?” “NO!” “Who made us?” “God made us.” “Yes, so that’s why it was very bad the white people were trying to stop people from learning. So the kids had to tell the grown ups they were doing something bad and to stop it. So its’ a day we remember the brave kids who said, “Stop doing those bad things!”
Yes. It is extremely awkward. Someone please tell me a better way to talk about this!! It’s awkward telling your three year old, “White people oppressed people, and we’re white.” On the other hand — because of the bravery and sacrifice of those youth, my life is much richer and freer. There are heroes in this history that I want my son to learn from. I want him to be the kind of person who stands up to injustice. How’s he going to learn that unless I talk about it? Heck, I even wrote a blog post once about how I wanted more white people in my life to talk about this stuff. Why is it so much harder when it’s my own kid? And why is it easier for me to do with South African history than American history?
For me, I think a tiny part is that I didn’t learn this as a child. I learned about apartheid as a child- it was a fact of life. There were no “good old days” for me. Whereas my American history came through nostalgic children’s books and museums on visits to the States, which did not address a lot of these stories, or treated them as a “special interest group” part of history. American history is the history of AMERICANS. All of us. It’s white supremacy says that Juneteenth is a sideline celebration for some of us- not an integral part of our history. I need to reject that that lie. So when Jasmine from First Name Basis podcast shared ways to celebrate Juneteenth with your family, and why you should,I realized: this has to be for us, too. If we’re going to celebrate July 4th all the way over here in South Africa, we can celebrate Juneteenth!
We can make some red velvet cupcakes and talk about the resilience of enslaved people, their joy at their freedom, and the evils of slavery. We can talk about the resistors, black and white. And we can join with those who are asking all of America to do the same.
WAYS TO CELEBRATE:
Listen to (and if you have kids consider being a patreon of) First Name Basis for ideas on how to talk to your kids about race, culture, and religion. Jasmine’s episode on how to celebrate Juneteenth with your family. Her website also has great book recs in the Juneteenth category. There’s some GOOD FOOD ideas, and cookbook ideas to support black creators.
The Witness a Black Christian Collective that engages in issues of race and justice from a Biblical perspective is doing a digital celebration across their social media platforms. I have learned so much from these voices.
I realized something today. 50% of South Africa’s population is under the age of 19. 70% is under the age of 35. Anyway you slice this, the majority of people in South Africa have not lived through apartheid. And most of the people who did live through apartheid are my parent’s age or older. They were teenagers during the late 70’s and 80’s.
I was thinking of this, because I attended a book launch last week for Glenn Moss’s new book “The New Radicals, a generational memoir” at my university campus. I read the book in about 3 days. Moss was a white guy who was part of the new student protests happening at (basically white) university campuses across South Africa in the 70s. This was the Steve Biko generation, when Black Consciousness challenged the liberal ideas of gradual change and paternalistic multi-cultural organizations. Moss ended up being detained without trial for months, and then finally tried along with some other NUSAS leaders. Reading his recounting of the time challenged some of my assumptions about those years.
It challenged the story that I’ve been told my whole life by teachers and the parents of friends:
“We just didn’t know.”
I believed that story. When you see the lengths the government went to repress information, the propaganda that was being spread, the insulated channels of knowledge transmission, the tight segregation that kept people from actually ever knowing someone of a different race–I can believe it. I understand.
I believe it because it still happens: there are people in my community now that genuinely don’t know how 80% of South Africans live. There are people who make sincere comments like, “I hate travelling to Capetown by car, because we have to go through those really run-down poor, black areas.” (Um, forgetting that’s like, you know, the whole of South Africa). But it’s sincere. I can’t really blame them. Their life has been lived in a bubble. Can you be held accountable for what you literally don’t know?
And then I read about the campaigns in the 70’s going on at Wits university. About the alternative student newspaper being circulated with reports about living conditions in townships and “homelands”. I read about demonstrations and anti-apartheid lectures with hundreds and even thousands of students. I read about a Wits medical student being killed in detention (while he was being interrogated before being tried with anything), and the front page news story this created, and the massive protest it sparked. I read about the sit-ins by university students at the Anglo-American mining headquarters in outcry against the shooting of over a dozen miners, and the poor wages of workers. I read about pamphlets, about first-year student welcome speeches, about campaigns to educate people on the history that had been repressed.
And I think–maybe this author is inflating the reach of their activities—but these things did not happen in a corner.
One the one hand, this information is liberating. I want to hear more stories like this. Not because I want everyone to think that it was the white student activists who were willing to be detained without trial, or who were assassinated by the security police, or who went and joined the MK freedom fighters who were the ones that liberated this country. Because they didn’t. They were a small, small minority.
But I’ve got to live in this skin, in this country. And I want to know that there were some folks who looked like me, who didn’t just go along with the system. I want to be okay living in this skin and saying, “Yes, I’m a white South African, but I’m not just part of a group that oppressed and ignored and exploited all through history. I’m part of a group that had some people who fought for justice as well.” I don’t want to have to disown my skin (I can’t, really, even as much as I may want to), so I want to redeem it.
On the other hand, this information is crushing. Because I can’t just believe the story, “We didn’t know” anymore.
Where were you?
You might have been ignorant. You might not have known. But you didn’t know because you didn’t want to know. You didn’t know because you purposefully avoided lectures by “radical” weirdos, you didn’t pick up any pamphlet handed out, you blocked your ears to protest songs, you turned your eyes away when you drove past townships, you dismissed anything that was different as evil. You didn’t know because you chose not to know.
But I want to hear that story, too. I want to hear it, because that’s also part of redeeming this white skin I’ve got to live with. I don’t’ want just hear about pranks in university, or the crazy Sargent you had when you were called up for armed forces training, with anything political conveniently screened out. I always thought apartheid never came up because you didn’t really “feel” it, because you were so isolated. But maybe you weren’t so isolated. Or maybe you created your own isolation.
I want to hear my friends parents say, “Yes, I was a student and I heard about these protests, but I was self-centered. I was more interested in flirting with the cute guy in my Maths lectures and saving up money for my Capetown holiday, and trying to pass my exams than taking the time to figure out what everyone was making a fuss about.
And I was afraid. I didn’t know what the end of apartheid would bring. I thought maybe the country would end in chaos, so I didn’t take the radical student’s arguments seriously. On June 16th, 1976, when Soweto highschool students were shot down in the streets, when Wits students went to protest and join them, I sat in my room and worked on homework. I didn’t understand what was going on around me.
And I didn’t stand up against the injustice.
But I should have.
And you should.
Even though I didn’t stand up to injustice then, our family is going to be known for doing that now. We’re going to keep our minds and ears open. We’re going to make space in our lives to be uncomfortable, to learn things we might not want to know, to listen to what life is like for people that society doesn’t privilege, because of the way they look, or their income level, or their sexual orientation, or their living conditions, or their language.”
Please, please, tell me that story. I need that story, too.
I don’t want to sound judgmental (but I also think judgment is not an all-bad thing). One day we’ll all be judged, if not by our children then by God himself. I know one day my kids will ask me where I was on a certain day in history. Maybe they’ll ask why I wasn’t out protesting the Marikana shootings, or handing out food at the platinum mine strike, or petitioning government to pressurize Uganda to change their anti-gay laws, or something that looking back will seem so obviously unjust to them.
And I hope, I hope, I’ll have the courage to say, “Yes, I didn’t do anything and I was wrong, and we’re going to be different.”
I don’t want to fall into the trap of structuring my life so that I don’t have to know.
And I want the courage of a previous generation.
Not just the courage of the students that took to the streets of Soweto to protest apartheid.
Not just the courage of the white university students who left the status-quo.
But also the courage of those who sat quietly and didn’t do anything at the time, but acknowledge their blindness and are living different lives because of it today.
So, where were you June 16th, 1976? Do you have a story to share?