I never really experienced overt racism. I had white, Asian, Latino and black friends. I was awash in the hunky-dory lifestyle of a suburban town where I saw myself as the friend that was black and not the black best friend. It often took history books and nighttime news for me to step back into reality and see a different perspective.
But I still knew the significance of Juneteenth. My mother and father made sure that my brother and I knew our history.
My mother shared with me a story, that happened just a few years before I was born. The saying was, “Come hell or high water, there will always be Juneteenth at Comanche Crossing.” That was the Booker T. Washington State Park, which was located in Mexia, Texas, my late father’s hometown, 50 miles east of Waco. And it was where one of the biggest Juneteenth celebrations took place every year.
In 1981, my mom and dad had driven down a mile-long road off the highway and across a bridge leading into Comanche Crossing. It was so packed that my parents barely made it across the bridge before they met bumper-to-bumper traffic, hundreds of cars in every direction. It was so overcrowded that people started leaving their cars to enjoy the festivities.
Three white officers had arrested Carl Baker, Steve Booker and Anthony Freeman for possession of marijuana. Because they could not get across the bridge due to all the abandoned cars, the officers put the men in a small boat, allegedly handcuffed. Their weight tipped the boat and all three boys drowned. My mom said people were in hysterics and yelling, “They drowned them boys!” The officers all survived and were later acquitted of negligent homicide before an all-white jury.
My mom and I had totally different experiences with race while growing up in Texas. What bonds us is the history behind our experiences. And it’s this ambivalence that I think many African Americans feel in this country. It even applies to Juneteenth itself.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, it did so in a back-handed sort of way. Lincoln was pushing the Confederate states into a return-to-the-Union corner by taking away the Confederacy’s main source of labor and subsistence.
Nevertheless, we were free. Free at last, free at last!