Note:this post is rather seriously out of sequence. I wanted to write about Juneteenth in order to address, even indirectly, the recent tragic attack in South Carolina, but the thing is we never observed Juneteenth as a holiday on campus. In my second year, 2001, we came close, though--Greg did an educational event around it, much as he did for Hiroshima Day, Nagasaki Day, and Pearl Harbor Day. He was very much the campus historian and he was always very interested in using history to foster cross-cultural empathy and compassion. But after 9/11he focused his efforts largely on combating discrimination against Muslims and did not address Juneteenth in 2002. So, not only is this post out of sequence because Juneteenth is before Litha, but this was Juneteenth, 2001.- D.
Greg says that white American culture is, collectively, narcissistic. I'm not sure how I feel about that.
He said it during one of the evening talks he does--one of the few that everybody on campus is strongly encouraged to attend. I've noticed these things are kind of like minor, third-tier holidays here--like, for the major holidays of school, the sabbats, we have these campus-wide celebrations. For Christian and Jewish holidays and things like 4th of July and Thanksgiving, we make space and time for those who want to celebrate them to do so. And then there are these things, historical dates, mostly, that we don't exactly celebrate at all but Greg does one of these campus-wide talks, apparently to get us thinking.
This one was for Juneteenth, the nineteenth of June and the anniversary of the freeing of the slaves in Texas.
Why Texas? Apparently, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the slaves in Texas weren't given the memo and were kept captive until well after the end of the Civil War when Federal authorities were finally able to come in and insist. They did so on June nineteenth. And a lot of the freed people immediately moved to other states, spreading the tradition of celebrating that day far and wide.
Apparently for much of the latter half of the 1800s and into the early 1900's, Juneteenth was something like a 4th of July for black people, with baseball games, barbecues, dressing up (something slaves were never allowed to do) and a lot of educational presentations for young people. Then the holiday kind of faded, but it's starting to make a resurgence. I'd never heard about it before, but a few others had.
The thing is that almost everybody here is white. There are exceptions, but it's disproportionate--there are fewer people of color here even than at most colleges. I think it's because so many people here are Neopagan in one way or another, and most (not all) Neopagans are white. So Greg makes a point of trying to broaden our horizons because, as he says, we're culturally narcissistic.
He wasn't accusing us individually of narcissism, but did say that being part of a dominant culture means you can pretend other perspectives don't exist and that if we don't want to be narcissists ourselves we have to make an effort to expose ourselves to ideas and information we might otherwise dismiss. It's much the same as what he said in his class, American Minority Perspectives, but not everybody has taken that, I don't remember him actually using the word "narcissism" then, and anyway I think that talking about slavery especially makes people defensive.
For one reason or another, he got some pushback this time, people wanting to argue.
Joanna stood up and said a lot of us are not members of the dominant culture, being variously pagan, and that in any case those of us who are female or gay or transgendered, are hardly dominant.Various people echoed the sentiment. They sounded angry. Greg held up his hand.
"So, what you're saying is that basically you're not boogeymen?" He paused to let that question sink in before continuing. "The fact of the matter is, no one is a boogeyman. No one is so privileged as to have no claim to any kind of unfairness, ever. This is no one so victimized so as to automatically understand the lives and struggles of all others who have been victimized, ever. This is not a contest and none of you can win."
From there he began talking about different forms of discomfort and fear, encouraging us to sit with those feelings and to listen to others when they talk about their lives, rather than speaking over them. He talked about how different categories of people can overlap so that a person can be both privileged and discriminated against at the same time, depending on context, and that looking for ways to address a problem makes a lot more sense than getting defensive about whose fault it is.
"Acknowledging culpability is part of justice," he said, and then looked around. We were outside, on the central field near the Dining Hall, and he'd spotted a plastic bag stuck in one of the maple trees along the field's edge. There isn't a lot of litter on campus, but it sometimes blows in or something. Then, too, outsiders sometimes come in for one reason or another, and drop things. Greg pointed at the bag and continued. "At the end of the day, I'm less interested in who put that up there than in who is going to get it down."
The thing is, he ended up spending most of his scheduled time responding to these questions and challenges--actually telling the story of Juneteenth went pretty quickly. I wonder if he used the word "narcissist" to incite a challenge so he could respond to it?
Afterwards, I asked him whether what he said worked to absolve people of responsibility for discriminatory or hurtful behavior. He shook his head.
"You're thinking like a judge," he told me, "or a legislator. Trying to establish who should be held accountable for what under what circumstances. That is the exact opposite of what I meant. Don't ask what should happen when they are accused, should they be held accountable for this or that fault. Imagine the question being asked of yourself. Then resolve that no matter what the answer is, you will respond the same way--in service." He looked at me a moment. "It's not like the self you're getting defensive about is real, anyway," he added, with a hint of a twinkle in his eye.