Juneteenth

Why had I never been taught about these events?

There are odd moments in our early education that will forever stand out in surprising clarity no matter how long we live. One of those moments for me was when, as a high school student, I turned the page of my history textbook to an illustration of the Trail of Tears. The illustration and the accompanying discussion of that horrific episode sent shudders down my spine.

During those years, the late 1960s and early 70s, the U.S. was coming smack up against the glass regarding its continuing abuse of the Native American population. The Red Power movement occupied Alcatraz and Wounded Knee; Paul Revere and the Raiders sang “Indian Reservation”. Claire Huffaker published the comic yet heart-wrenching novel Nobody Loves a Drunken Indian. Consequently, having read just that brief mention of their plight in my school textbook, I was saddened and supportive.

Circle the world on its axis thousands of times…. The summer of 2020 happened. Not just pandemic, but the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Abery and George Floyd. Racial protests and clashes throughout the U.S.

In the slow awakening of consciousness that followed, I read. I read, among other things, of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and Juneteenth—events of which I had barely, or, in the case of Juneteenth, never heard. Subjects that had certainly not been covered in those long-ago school history books. Stories that were, until that summer, touched on briefly, if at all, by major news outlets.

Again, I was shocked and saddened, but this time I also questioned. Why had I never been taught about so many events? Why had my schoolbooks not examined them, my teachers never mentioned them?

And then, the horrifying realization: because my teachers did not know.

In the Pale Island of my youthful existence on the southeast side of Indianapolis, I had, throughout my school years, not a single Black teacher. The parochial elementary schools that I attended had not one Black nun or Black priest. My high school did not have a single Black student until my senior year. There were no Black families in my parents’ housing addition until I was in my 20s; a local library had a single Black librarian, Ms. Inez Babbs, a close acquaintance of my mother.

There was essentially no one to teach me about Black history, because no one in my immediate vicinity knew. What little I learned came from occasionally catching a documentary on public TV, or reading a few scattered articles about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I existed treading water in a sea of ignorance, without even realizing that others were drowning.

Occasionally, the truth was brought home to me. Living three years in the American South during the early 80s awakened me to more racial prejudice than I had ever believed existed. I rode the bus to work for economic reasons, but mine was one of the few White faces; the seats were clotted with older Black women—maids, mostly, taking the bus to the homes of the affluent White families for whom they worked. The insurance agency where I found a job had to be forced by the head office in New York into employing its first Black agent.

But that was the deep south. When I returned to Indiana a few years later, I told myself that such things only happened there. My Northern home was different, I assured myself.

However mistaken that assurance, it seemed to be true. I spent the rest of my years of employment working for the State, where equal opportunity hiring was enforced, and fully half my coworkers were Black. Lowly office support staff myself, it did not occur to me how few of those Black coworkers were supervisors.

Ignorance is bliss, the saying goes. My carefully-maintained ignorance allowed me to go for years existing on my Pale Island, genuinely believing the untruth that racial equity was the norm. Today, though, reading and watching and educating myself on racial disparities, I am far more than dismayed; I am angry. Angry and appalled at how little I was taught, not just of Black history, but of that of all races. Even having lived through the Red Power events of the previous century, I knew little about the shameful treatment of America’s indigenous peoples. I learned of Angel Island, and the horrific behavior of Americans toward Asian immigrants, from a novel, not my schoolbooks. The history of the concentration camps of WW II had been thoroughly taught to me, but their counterparts, the American internment camps, were accorded only a paragraph or two; carefully glossed over. Anti-Semitism was barely mentioned.

Why was I not taught, I ask, and then I must, in shame, face the real answer. It was not merely that my teachers themselves did not know, or that they did not choose to know. It was that I preferred keeping my head firmly in the sand rather than face uncomfortable truths.

Education is, as I have pointed out before, not something one gets, but a gift that one gives to the self. Painful as it is, I am slowly educating myself on the history and reality that I have, for a lifetime, preferred to ignore. Becoming my own teacher is a shock to the system, but necessary, and is, in the end, that gift.

If this essay struck a note with you, you might also like “The Slave Cabin” from February 8, 2018. You might also find “A Cultural Heritage”, February 10, 2018, interesting, but disconcerting. Scroll down to the Archives link to locate them.

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