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Understanding our history this Juneteenth to move our community forward

Simone Talma Flowers is the executive director of Interfaith Action of Central Texas.

A Persian friend of mine can trace her family back for hundreds of years; more than 1,500 years on her mother’s side and more than 1,000 years on her father’s.

A colleague of mine said his family are 13 generations of Texans.

I’ve always been fascinated with people who can trace their history back for generations. I can trace my family roots to six generations. The older I get, the more I hunger to learn more about my roots.

I grew up with my grandparents present, however, I was too young to ask probing questions or to gather the information I seek now.

I’m thankful for the recorded history; in newspapers and church documents. I am especially thankful for the oral stories passed down, to understand the movement of my family from one island of the Caribbean to another — Martinique, Grenada, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago. And that’s only on my father’s side.

For my mother’s side — I don’t know the history of her deep mixed ancestry of Africa, India, China and Europe. I can only speculate. What I do know is that I’m not alone in not knowing my family history passed three to six generations. The situation is similar for those whose ancestors came to seek a better life, flee religious persecution or seek economic opportunities. It is also true for those whose ancestors were forced into slavery.

Telling and sharing our history is critical in understanding who we are. It helps us heal and  plan a future where the atrocities of our past are not repeated. It helps us put safeguards in place to protect our freedoms and moves us to a more equitable place. 

In Trinidad and other nations that built wealth on the slave trade, they recognize that dark history by celebrating the Emancipation of Slavery. In Texas, Emancipation Day is celebrated and called Juneteenth; June 19, 1865. Only 156 years ago, in Galveston, Gen. Gordon Granger declared that slaves are free. This was two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. 

African-Americans throughout Texas celebrate Juneteenth, as well as many Americans throughout the nation. I remember attending many barbecues on Juneteenth and getting together with my church community to honor the people who died for freedom, to give thanks for the lives lived and the sacrifices made to get us to where we are today. We celebrate the freedoms we have — with the awareness of the distance still ahead of us. 

Juneteenth is American History. Juneteenth is our history. Juneteenth is history that warrants curiosity — from all of us. We should be curious to ask: How was the roll out of the abolishment of slavery? Because Black people were considered property, how did the slave owners handle the fact that their slaves were free? What protections were there for the transition of a slave to freedom? How and when did the mindset change from viewing Black people as “property” to “being a human”? Did this transition of status come to be recognized as a transition to full humanity? 

With what we know about this history, we realize that the answers to these questions are not  reassuring — that it took decades for positive changes to happen — that it might take decades more before we see these problems solved. So many of the issues were put on a back burner to simmer then boil over with scorching consequences. 

How do we reconcile together to heal each other? This work of healing is transformative and systemic change needs everyone to be involved — the faith community, the educational community, the health industry, the political community and the business community. All must acknowledge and accept that Black people are fully human. That brown people are fully human. That indigenous people are fully human. Immigrants are fully human. 

Juneteenth reminds us to ask the questions — how are we treating each other? Are we loving our neighbors as ourselves? Mark 12:31 says “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Let us celebrate Juneteenth this year by committing to our neighbors. By reminding ourselves that emancipation only came after slavery. That the scars are still there. That so many in our community need to be reminded to believe and commit to the full humanity of everyone else. That our duty is to remember to remind them often.

Simone Talma Flowers serves as the executive director of Interfaith Action of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org, which cultivating peace, respect, and understanding of our diverse communities.