In Maywood, a Juneteenth Celebration Prompts an Abiding Question: Are Blacks Really Free?

Panel 1

Community members during a panel discussion last Saturday about the significance of Juneteenth and its current resonance. | Michael Romain/VFP

Panel 2Thursday, June 22, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews

When Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued on June 19, 1865 General Order No. 3, announcing that “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” President Abraham Lincoln (the executive referenced in the order) was dead and the 13th Amendment “was well on its way to ratification,” according to historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s online essay, “What is Juneteenth?”

A major reason why news of emancipation reached Texas last was because for many slave owners, the Lone Star State offered temporary refuge from the Union Army’s advances.

“Since the capture of New Orleans in 1862, slave owners in Mississippi, Louisiana and other points east had been migrating to Texas to escape the Union Army’s reach,” Gates explains. “In a hurried re-enactment of the original Middle Passage, more than 150,000 slaves had made the trek west, according to historian Leon Litwack in his book ‘Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery.’ As one former slave he quotes recalled, ‘It looked like everybody in the world was going to Texas.’”

Since then, Gates notes, Juneteenth has become “the most popular annual celebration of emancipation from slavery in the United States.”

In Maywood last week, the holiday presented former and current residents with an opportunity to reflect not just on a historical event with national resonance but also on the village’s local history with respect to race relations.

On June 13 and 14, Operation Uplift Inc., the organization’s West Town Museum of Cultural History and the village of Maywood sponsored Reflections of the Past tours, during which community members learned about significant historical sites — including a section of Maywood where only African Americans and Jews lived.

Last Saturday, the organizations hosted a proclamation ceremony that included a reenactment of the Union army’s arrival at Galveston, Texas and a reading of Gen. Granger’s order. After the ceremony, community members gathered for a Juneteenth Soul Food Feast and a panel discussion that begged the question of whether or not blacks can be considered free — Gen. Granger’s order from more than 150 years ago notwithstanding.

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, “all slaves are tree.” This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts, and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

“I’m not clear we’re not still in slavery,” said Judge Gay F. Chase, who sat on a 9-person panel during a discussion that was moderated by radio personality Al B. Sylk. Around 20 audience members listened intently under a tent pitched beside the West Town Museum of Cultural History, 104 S. 5th Ave. in Maywood.

George Stone, Operation Uplift’s interim executive director, likened the panel discussion to an old-fashioned community gathering designed to resolve local problems and find common ground — even though most of the problems mentioned during the 2-hour panel are pervasive, plaguing largely minority urban centers from sea to shining sea.

While the panelists were unanimous in their discussion about the many problems ailing the African American population, including chronically high unemployment rates, gun violence, drug abuse and high dropout rates, there was a clear break in consensus when it came to plotting a clear path beyond those systemic problems.

“We need to uplift our race and find out what our issues are so we can heal our people,” said Stone. “We’re not looking for outside healing or a handout. We’ll take reparations because they’re owed to us, but we want to heal ourselves.”

In diagnosing what he called “Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” Stone laid many of the problems ailing some blacks to “a false sense of priority” and a range of dysfunctional behavioral patterns (“black men wanting to be pimps,” “women being promiscuous,”) that he said is rooted in slavery.

“We never had any counseling after slavery, we just kept persevering,” Stone said. “This trickles down from generation to generation. We have a lot of mental illness — not just in the youth but in the parents who raise them and their parents.”

Michael Burton, an attorney, said that he attributes most of the problems affecting blacks in America to the breakdown of the family structure.

“When you have prisons for profit, they have to be filled up in order for the stakeholders to make money,” Burton said. “For the stakeholders to make money, they’re going to fill them up with black and brown bodies. The men who are taken away from the family weakens the family, therefore youth are exposed to things they ordinarily would not be exposed to had there been a strong male role model in the house.”

Stephen Allan Hall (also known as Ifagbayi Malefi Ayodeji Adéyafa), a community mental health specialist and DePaul University psychology instructor, modified Stone’s diagnose before emphasizing, along with other panelists and an audience member, what he said is the root cause of the present social dysfunction among blacks.

“One of my colleagues said during a conference a couple of weeks ago that she had good and bad news,” Hall said. “The good news is our community isn’t suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The bad news is the reason they’re not suffering from PTSD is because there is no post. We are in a continual state of traumatized lives.”

Hall said he isn’t necessarily convinced that the social conditions in many black communities are due to broken families. He said the deeper cause of blacks’ problems is white supremacy.

“I think it’s important that we not victim blame,” he said. “Black folks in the United States since our beginning in this country have been victims. That is real. We’ve been victims because folks have oppressed us and we need to own that. [One professor] said this: ‘If you don’t understand white supremacy, white racism, everything you do understand will only confuse you.”

Hall described a history of devastation heaped upon successful, self-contained black communities like Chicago, Atlanta and Tulsa.

“Look at communities that, historically, were black and self-contained,” Hall said. “They were punished for that. They were burned to the ground. People were killed.”

Rasaan Booker, an African American audience member with dreadlocks, had been subtly chastised by another audience member to pull his shorts up while walking to the center of the tent to comment.

Ironically, Booker criticized ‘respectability politics,’ or when, according to an essay in Dissent by Columbia political science professor Frederick C. Harris, the “virtues of self-care and self-correction [i.e., dressing appropriately] are framed as strategies to lift the black poor out of their condition by preparing them for the market economy.”

Booker said respectability politics now defines the black church, long the most powerful agent of social uplift that African Americans could leverage.

“The church doesn’t really allow for resistance and only encourages docility,” he said. “It’s difficult when you’re constantly being told to fit into this respectability model and that there’s always something wrong with you.

“[People say], ‘Trayvon Martin wouldn’t have been killed if he hadn’t worn a hoodie or people wouldn’t get stopped if their pants weren’t sagging,’” Booker said. “Respectability has never saved us. When Martin Luther King was marching in his finest suit, he was still stabbed and arrested multiple times.”

Rev. Ronald Beauchamp, the pastor of Bethel New Life Church in Wheaton, agreed with Maywood Park District Commissioner Bill Hampton for the effectiveness, if not for the moral validity, of respectability politics.

“Nobody told me to come out here today and wear my collar and suit coat,” Beauchamp said. “Nobody told me that, but because of my position, because of my understanding of my role, I did what I felt was appropriate. I could’ve come in shorts and a t-shirt, but I knew I wanted to have an image and a presentation. I wanted you to respect the words coming out of my mouth.”

“The way we carry ourselves has a lot to do with how we think,” said Hampton. “Take professional gangsters. You can’t tell they’re gangsters. If you give yourself away with the pants sagging and [profanity] coming out of your mouth, that builds into ignorance … Dr. King said, ‘I want you to be first in moral excellency.’”

“Yeah, but that’s always on black people! You have white kids walking around with their pants sagging and they won’t get shot,” said Brandy Booker, a Moraine Valley Community College professor and Rasaan’s mother.

“[White kids] cuss in front of my grandma, but they don’t get gunned down,” she said. “Why does the brunt of being always above fall on blacks? In 2017? That is ridiculous.” VFP

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3 thoughts on “In Maywood, a Juneteenth Celebration Prompts an Abiding Question: Are Blacks Really Free?

  1. I was at the event and it was okay, but some of the moderators really were not asking the audience a very thorough answer to the audiences’ questions. Let’s forget that slavery is the main issue of what is going on with Blacks today. There should be more progressive solutions on how to fix the problem. I recall Bellwood Mayor Andre Harvey stated that “Gov. Rauner needs to go and invest in mental health clinics.” True, but let’s not just put the blame on our Illinois Governor. You have to also hold your IL Representative, mayors, and the people that you have elected accountable. It’s just how it works, before you blame our Illinois governor. I bet you guys a lot of money that some don’t even know who their mayors, village trustees, and IL representatives and don’t attend the town hall meetings. I wish the event was more thorough and had it inside the West Town Museum of Cultural History.

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