Juneteenth | June 19, 2022 by Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton
Our opening music from James Weldon Johnson was written in 1900. About the circumstances of the song, Johnson wrote:
A group of young men in Jacksonville, Florida, arranged to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercises. I wrote the words and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by
a chorus of five hundred colored school children. Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away
from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds.
But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it;
they went off to other schools and sang it;
they became teachers and taught it to other children.
Within twenty years it was being sung over the South
and in some other parts of the country.
Today the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn,
is quite generally used. The lines of this song repay me in an elation,
almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.
The origins of this song make it all the more important. It caught on organically in Jacksonville and beyond because it was breathtaking and beautiful with its audacity…its elements of despair and hope and profound truth. I am waiting “till earth and heaven ring…with the harmonies of Liberty”. While I wait, the world keeps turning and the hopes and dreams of that song seem more and more unlikely.
Still, I want to have hope…I want to persevere like so many in the history of this country have…against all odds…in the face of horrors and hatred not less than we are experiencing today. I go back to that song: we need rejoicing! How can we rejoice when there is so much pain…so much hatred and lies…so much injustice and war? How can we rejoice when terror, clothed in human flesh walks around with automatic weapons poised to eliminate the objects of blind hatred?
But we need to rejoice! Today is Juneteenth, meant to be a day of celebration…the celebration of the belated news of emancipation delivered in the state of Texas in 1865…more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a day we remember our past…the roots of our shared history. It is a day when we honor the work of those who had faith…who had hope, even ”in the days when hope unborn had died”. Have we “come to the place for which our fathers sighed”…the place where we can stand in the light of the bright star of freedom? It doesn’t feel like it. But we know that freedom is never and has never been “free”. For some of us, freedom is very difficult to navigate. Although it is enticing, it carries with it a responsibility that is hard to bear.
I go back to that song: God of our weary years, God of our silent tears…keep us forever in the path we pray”. It is in God…our creator…the womb from which we sprung that we find our guidance and our hope!
Still, I go back to that song: “Lest our feet stray…lest, our hearts…forget thee”. It is easy to stray…easy to forget. Often we do not want to face the reality before us and the burden of our freedom. We are hurting…and in the words of Amanda Gorman…everything hurts…and when we hurt we do not live up the to “moment of our high resolve”. Instead, we ache…
Hymn for the Hurting
Everything hurts, Our hearts shadowed and strange, Minds made muddied and mute. We carry tragedy, terrifying and true. And yet none of it is new; We knew it as home, As horror, As heritage. Even our children Cannot be children, Cannot be. Everything hurts. It’s a hard time to be alive, And even harder to stay that way. We’re burdened to live out these days, While at the same time, blessed to outlive them. This alarm is how we know We must be altered — That we must differ or die, That we must triumph or try. Thus while hate cannot be terminated, It can be transformed Into a love that lets us live. May we not just grieve, but give: May we not just ache, but act; May our signed right to bear arms Never blind our sight from shared harm; May we choose our children over chaos. May another innocent never be lost.
The hope in Amanda Gorman’s words is awesome…she says that we are “blessed to outlive” these difficult days through our actions, not just the ache of our grief and despair. She says that we need to change…change our idea that hate can be obliterated…no, it cannot, but she says that it can be transformed…transformed into “a love that lets us live”.
It is the contradictions of life…love in the face of hate…courage in the face of fear that I think this day is about. It is about our African American ancestors, as well as contemporaries, overcoming a terrorizing history and the continued terror today with the power of this transformative spirit…what Howard Thurman called the transcendent monitor…He wrote:
…there rides always on the horizon a timeless, transcendent monitor by which not only is the direction of life somehow guided but also by which a person is stabilized in the midst of the contradictions of experience.
We are stabilized, yes, but there is more…he continues…
But this does not release a person from the necessity of seeking always to locate the profoundest religious insights in the very structure of life as a living human being, spawned from the womb of the earth, and as a participant in that which sustains and supports all life on the planet. Ultimately, all the dualisms of a person’s experience as a creature must exhaust themselves in a corroborating unity fundamental to life and not merely dependent upon that which transcends life by whatever name a person seeks to patronize it.
We are to search within the very structure of life…spawned from the womb of the earth, for our guidance to deal with the contradictions of life. And notice that Thurman says we are participants in that which sustains and supports life on earth. We are co-creators…meant to fully participate in our experience…not merely depend on “that which transcends life”…upon God (or whatever name we seek to patronize it!).
And I would say that we are also meant to search in our day-to-day experiences with other human beings…our ancestors…our forefathers and mothers and our contemporaries…each one with a unique, sacred personality…a unique gift that is needed to be able to “outlive” these days. Each one with their own light.
We need the light of each of us for the hopes and dreams of our forefathers and mothers to inch closer to reality…that we may “march on till victory is won”…that we walk hand in hand in that land that Olive Schreiner dreamed of…
I dreamed I saw a land.
And on the hills walked brave women and brave men, hand in hand.
And they looked into each other’s eyes, and they were not afraid.
And I saw the women also hold each other’s hands.
And I said to him beside me, “What place is this?”
And he said, “This is heaven.” And I said, “Where is it?”
And he answered, “On earth.” And I said, “When shall these things be?”
And he answered, “In the future.”
May we reach for the ideals of justice and peace…of equality and love…the world that we dream of…may we continue with the unfinished business of freedom…facing the rising sun of our future.