Today is June 19th – “Juneteenth” – also historically known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, and Emancipation Day. This day celebrates the emancipation on January 1, 1863 of all people [primarily black] who were enslaved in the United States. It wasn’t until June 19th, 1866 that the slaves in the territory of Texas finally found out that they had actually been set free years before! Their reactions of prayer, singing and dancing became an annual tradition. That is the origin story of “Juneteenth“.
Two days ago – on Thursday, June 17, 2021 – Juneteenth was [finally] officially designated as a National Holiday in the United States.
Over the years, several other countries have adopted the month of June to celebrate their own emancipations.
I was born a white American woman with the privilege of never living with fear or stigma about the color of my skin, my ethnicity, or heritage. I was raised in a homogenously white part of my nation, and in a very homogenously white Utah culture.
I was taught several things that were not true or right about slavery, or what it means to be a person of color. I have never had to think about the color of my skin. I have never worried I wouldn’t get a job or be discriminated against because of my ethnicity. I have never feared for my life – or my child’s life – just walking down the street or driving in my car because of how I look. I’ve never been terrified I could die during a routine traffic stop. But, I know that a whole lot of my fellow citizens – including fellow Latter-day Saints – do live with those worries and fears, and it deeply disturbs and grieves me.
I’m going to get very real here, and I’m not going to mince words. The “quiet parts” need to be said out loud. I am not only a white American, I am a white Mormon. I was born in 1966, and raised during a time in my Church history when all black male members were denied being ordained to the priesthood, and all black members [male and female] were denied temple blessings. There was no logical or doctrinal explanation for the “Priesthood ban” – but that certainly didn’t stop members from creating explanations. A predominant belief was that being white was more “delightsome” [a Book of Mormon word], white was more holy, white was more “celestial”. There was a belief that if you were not born white, you were carrying a “curse”. Perhaps you did something wrong in the pre-mortal world which justified this “curse”, or perhaps you were just carrying the “curse” of your ancestors – but one day when you were resurrected you’d get to be “washed clean” and become white! There was deep prejudice against inter-racial marriage, because then any children born into this union would also be carrying “the curse”.
These sickening, pervasive beliefs – although not founded on the Gospel of Jesus Christ – were embraced by white members, and we ran with it. Racism was taught in Sunday School. It was preached over pulpits. It was rampant in our homes and schools. Racism has been – and remains in many sectors – a systemic issue in my church. I believe it needs to be acknowledged and condemned. Repeatedly. As far as I am concerned, it cannot be condemned long enough or loud enough! I also believe our members of color deserve a formal apology from the church for our history of racism. That apology has never happened yet. Our highest leaders always draw up short of issuing one. Why? Well, perhaps they fear it would shake member’s testimonies to realize that sometimes our past prophets were not actually speaking things inspired by God, but rather their words and policies were born from their own personal opinions, fears, and biases. Or, perhaps they hope if they don’t say anything, we will all just forget it ever happened…
We don’t have to blindly believe everything our leaders say or do in order to still have a deep and abiding testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His restored church. In fact, it’s critical to NOT blindly believe. It’s OKAY to objectively and thoughtfully weigh messages we hear, and rely on personal inspiration from God to guide our hearts. The church, like all of us, is a work in progress.
The priesthood ban was enacted in 1852, and it was not lifted until 1978. A lot more was restored than just the Priesthood.
I remember that day clearly. It was a day filled with excitement and rejoicing, shock and amazement. I also remember hearing things whispered such as “It’s a very good thing Grandma died before today or she would have left the church!”
In recent years, the LDS church has increasingly tried to distance themselves from its racist history. There have been Conference talks that mention how bad racism “or any prejudice” is. In 2013 they released the “Race and the Priesthood” article online – although many members may not be familiar with it. They make sure there is a focus on Celebrating the Anniversary of the historic “Restoration of the Priesthood” revelation – with large concerts and pageantry. Basically, the message regarding black oppression is “well, that was then, but look at us now! Let’s not dwell on the past”.
Globally today there are more members of color [non-white] on the records of the church than white members. There are definitely a LOT more members who are not Americans and who are not familiar with, nor experience, the white nationalistic tendencies of their white American Latter-day Saint brothers and sisters.
Discrimination, bias and subjugation of anyone is NOT the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is not what he lived and died for. He came for all – he died for all.
Believing we are somehow better than another person – for any reason – is NOT the kind of mindset a good human, or a good follower of Christ, will allow themselves to fall prey to.
If you still cling to any of those racist ideas, or keep trying to find excuses for why you are exempt somehow from rejecting racism, STOP IT. NOW.
America has black slavery and racism in our roots. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – as an American born church – has black slavery, and racism in our roots. As Americans, or Latter-day Saints, we can’t say our roots don’t matter. It’s where we came from, and how we’ve grown for better and for worse. It is part of our history that has deeply impacted and informed decisions from then to now, and beyond.
The overt practice of black slavery in America may be “ended” but its impact is not over. All of slavery’s horror, ugliness, cruelty, injustice, and inhumanity has informed the ensuing decades of hatred, intolerance, ugliness, cruelty, injustice, and inhumanity – something that continues generations later.
The treatment of people of color has built us, shaped us, shamed us, and continues to harm our souls and kill our people.
What Juneteenth means to me is that today we have taken a positive step forward in our history. Today, a lot more Americans are SAYING “Juneteenth“. We are googling it. We are reading the history. We are becoming informed. Hopefully, more of us are reexamining our personal biases and reevaluating how we can become better Americans, neighbors, and humans.
On January 1, 1863 an Emancipation was Proclaimed for all black slaves – but sadly, that was just the beginning of another very long road fighting for equal freedoms, rights, inclusion and protection. Juneteenth reminds us that this nation has a history of overcoming incredible obstacles. We have the ability to get ourselves in terrible messes – but we also have the ability to do the right thing to ensure we become “a more perfect union” where “all men and women are created equal”. Our diversity is our strength and beauty.
Juneteenth is a reminder for white people to take pause, and be humble about all that we take for granted.
Juneteenth reminds people of color that their voices, stories, fears, and lives matter! We can do better, and we can be better. As a nation, as members of the church, and as individual human beings.
I am thankful for the Sistas in Zion [Zandra and Tamu] for speaking their truth and helping be reminders of what being a Black Mormon in America means right now – how we have been improving but also how much work we still need to do [A LOT] to reach our potential! I’ll close with a video of them for you to enjoy!
Happy Juneteenth. – Holly