What Juneteenth and My Father Taught Me About 'Expectations'

My father, David, holding me while my mother and sister look on.
My father, David, holding me while my mother and sister look on.
Photo: Belton Family Photo

I wouldn’t know Juneteenth without my father.

He’s the Texan. He grew up celebrating the holiday that started on June 19, 1865, when slaves on Galveston Island, Texas, finally learned they’d been freed under the Emancipation Proclamation two years prior. Even though he now lived in St. Louis, he’d always make the same jokey reference to the holiday with his brother, my Uncle Bill, asking if he was “drinking red soadie water” and barbecuing on June 19.


But my holiday-loving mother never seemed all that interested in Juneteenth or my father’s jokes about it. She was born in Arkansas and would often tire of my father’s bragging about his home state. Like most Texans, he had a tendency from time to time to think some of the things there were better than anywhere else, even though by the time I was a teenager, he’d been a Missourian longer than he’d ever been a Texan.

Still, he was proud of the holiday, and my mom always rebutted that in Arkansas, they didn’t need Juneteenth because her people “already knew they were free.”

“Y’all found out late,” she would mock.

She would still help season the meat, make the potato salad and fix a banana pudding, though. Any excuse for a big meal and a party is still a good excuse.

Today my mother isn’t particularly helpful with meals, thanks to the dementia she suffers from, and because my father cares for her full time, he’s occasionally too tired to drag out the grill and barbecue. My sisters and I, who are capable of things like cooking and even barbecuing, still like it when my father prepares a meal. He’s got more than seven decades of experience of knowing what tastes best with what, and in all honesty, he’s a better cook than any of us.

My father, even though he is often exhausted from caring for our mom and babysitting his beloved only grandchild, will still make you a meal because he loves you. He’s gotten mushy the older he’s gotten. When we were children, getting an “I love you” out of him was arduous at times, but once we all moved out and became adults, he went full marshmallow. When my sisters and I worry about “the everything,” he’s there as a calming force, convinced that we will all be fine. Mostly because he believes that he’s capable of making anything and everything fine through his love and devotion.


Worried about work? He used to have problems with work! And he has just the story that will help you solve your problem. Worried about finances? He’s good with money and has great financial advice. Worried you’re going to die alone surrounded by nothing but your cats? He promises he’s always going to be there, you know, until he isn’t there, and even then he’s planning contingency plans on what should happen if he’s not there so that he’s always still taking care of us, looking out for us, even beyond this world.

My father takes care of things. He takes care of the people he loves. And he has spoiled us all with this. Because of our father, we think that you’re never supposed to run out of toilet paper or money and that you should always be early going anywhere. We believe that you’re supposed to be honest, reliable and unwaveringly faithful to the cause—whether it’s career, family or yourself. He’s a good man. Maybe too good?


A guy told me once that I had “daddy issues.”

I had always assumed that this pejorative was something reserved as a catchall excuse as to why a woman seemed “crazy” in her relationships with men. But as my colleague would break down, my “daddy issues” were not the result of abandonment or broken promises. My issue was something he saw as even worse than stereotypical “daddy issues.”


“You had a good father,” he explained. “He ‘ruined’ you.”

“How?” I said, utterly perplexed.

“You expect things,” he said.

Expect things? What did I expect? For friends to be reliable and true? For romantic partners to show emotional support and devotion? What was hard about these things? What was terrible about them? What’s wrong with expectations?


Juneteenth is about expectations. Sure, it’s a celebration of freedom with a side of barbecue, but with that freedom came expectations. Expectations that we would be treated equally and not as second-class citizens. That we would be able to marry and love those of our choosing, those who would also choose us, and that we would be able to work and live as free people. Some said that we expected too much, too soon. So many died fighting to have their expectations met. You’re supposed to have expectations—of yourself, of others, of this world.

There’s nothing wrong with expecting something more, something better and fighting for that, demanding that, instead of settling for the scraps the world throws down at us, expecting us to be grateful for them. What was true for newly free men and women is true for us in all aspects of our lives, romantic or otherwise. I’m grateful to have a father who taught me that I was free—free to choose my own path, free to make up my own mind, free to celebrate Juneteenth, even if my mother did make fun of it.


And I expect to enjoy this freedom. Just as I’m sure my father will enjoy his Father’s Day/Juneteenth, whether he bothers to barbecue or not.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on The Root on June 19, 2016.


Mojo Where's My Free Black Stuff Hanna

The love, care, guidance and devotion of my father and my seven uncles taught me to expect the best from life. Their ways of living modeled what a “good man” is which gave me expectations about how I should be treated in a relationship. In my neighborhood, the vast majority of the fathers were our rocks, swords and shields. For the vigilant and loving adults of my child life, I am eternally grateful.

Thanks for allowing us a peek into your story. It warmed my heart and brought up some very precious memories.