I am writing this letter in honor of Juneteenth, a day that commemorates June 19, 1865, when the last enslaved people in Texas were freed from captivity.
In many ways this represented a transition in our country. It was the final act to physically abolishing slavery. But that did not mean the legacy of slavery was over.
We are all aware that the wounds of slavery continue to linger far beyond that day in 1865. It was a day when the last state government in our country officially recognized that slavery was over, and that all of us had to find a way to live in a country where our sisters and brothers could no longer be held in bondage.
However, I feel Juneteenth represents a start of a different type of challenge; a challenge to reveal the truth of slavery and how that institution made our country less the America we want it to be.
Two weeks ago, our nation remembered and honored the Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This attack against a prosperous black community in 1921 was a blow to our nation’s history, but it was also a wound to truth, in that immediately after the massacre it was covered up and erased from the record. By recognizing and honoring the fact that the Greenwood massacre occurred, a step in the right direction toward reconciliation and healing in America was made, but that does not change the fact that there is still work to do.
Another important day to honor this month is June 6, the day the Allies stormed Normandy. My grandfather was the son of Polish immigrants, and he served in Normandy, receiving the Silver Star. He did not often talk about his actual experiences serving there, but when he sat down with his black grandchildren to tell us what he learned from war, he phrased it in the coolest way possible. He told us that Americans celebrate their achievements, but acknowledge their shame.
I do not know what it was my grandpa did in Normandy, but while I know he was proud of his service. I also feel that in his service he had to do things he was not proud of, and I know that I am proud of him for admitting that truth.
We as Americans love to celebrate our victories, but more often than not, we run from our shame. We bury it, refuse to talk about it, hope it will go away. But we also forget that we cannot overcome our shame unless we acknowledge it.
As a black man who grew up and was educated in Vermont, I can say I am honestly grateful for the education I received here. In many ways, it has allowed me to become the small-town Vermont minister I am today. We have a good educational system in this state, but we do not provide our schools and teachers the resources they need to effectively teach us about the history of racism in our country and how it is still present in our society.
In order for me to learn this information, I had to leave Vermont. I lived seven years in Harlem, where I was introduced to critical race theory and the exploration of the history of racism in our country. A lot of that history was hidden from us in the way that the history of the Greenwood Massacre was hidden from us.
I was not taught this history in school as a child and, as a result, I was ill-equipped to deal with modern-day racism in my own life. I was lucky that I had the opportunity to learn this history, which I feel is vital to all people who want to make our country a post-racist nation. But we cannot do that if we are not given the opportunity to learn what racism in our country looks like.
Vermont has a big problem with racism and systemic racism, and it comes from the fact that too many of us do not know what racism looks like, and too many of us want to run away from our nation’s shame, rather than acknowledge and overcome it.
This attitude of avoidance is fueled by a political environment that wants to take the history of racism in our country and brand it as identity politics, unfit for legitimate history. Turning our history of racism into a political weapon is a critical blow against truth in our nation, and it robs us of the opportunity to grow and heal the wounds of racism that are still with us.
I would hope that, on this 156th anniversary of Juneteenth, legislators in Vermont will recognize how this understanding of history is currently under assault. I would implore them to pass legislation protecting the truth and encourage the teaching of America’s history with a straightforward portrayal of its racist legacy in our schools, because too many of us are unequipped to enter into the vital conversations needed to heal our nation’s lingering social wounds.
The shame of racism will never go away; it is a part of our legacy. But it is only by acknowledging and overcoming that legacy that our nation can build a future we all can celebrate together.
Rev. Devon Thomas, the Second Congregational Churches in Jeffersonville and Hyde Park and the United Church of Bakersfield and Fairfield