Monday marks Juneteenth, otherwise known as freedom on CP time.
Yes, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. But it wasn’t until June 19, 1865, that the word made it to Texas, in the form of an order read by a Union Army general.
“Blacks greeted the news with the overwhelming joy that accompanies receiving the answer to a life-long prayer,” wrote Judson Jeffries, professor in the African American and African Studies Department at Ohio State University, in “Juneteenth, Black Texans and the Case for Reparations.”
White Texans, on the whole, were not as elated. One celebration of the newly freedmen was interrupted, Jeffries wrote, “when a (white) sword-wielding man nearly cut a black woman in half on the street.” In another instance, a black man who “leapt high in the air to express his delight” was shot between the legs by his slave master.
The reparations of 40 acres and a mule promised to freed people? It never arrived. This year, the Black Land and Liberation Initiative wants black folks to collect on that debt — not in the form of the beast of burden, but the one thing that they’re not making any more of.
On this Juneteenth, in cities across the country, black people will reclaim places and spaces as part of #40Acres40Cities, a direct action coordinated by the BlackOUT Collective and Movement Generation. Reclamation could take the shape of a pop-up park or a community festival in an empty lot. Or it could be the takeover of a space with contested ownership.
Black people’s connection to the land is as deep as it is tenuous. We farmed the land, reaping crops and generating profits for slave owners, profits that undergird families and businesses that exist to this day.
Yet at the same time, we are vulnerable, be it to gentrification, predatory lenders, subprime mortgages or government policies that discriminate against black farmers. The #40Acres40cities action focuses on the South and Midwest, where the concentration of black people is higher. And while the Movement for Black Lives’ website lists some of the participating cities, the exact location may stay secret until the direct action occurs.
“You can’t say, we’ll be at this corner for an occupation,” said Chinyere Tutashinda, co-director of the BlackOUT Collective. “For black folks, when we think about liberation and equality, we have to understand that capitalism won’t get us free,” she said. “In order for it to continue to exist, someone has to be oppressed. … And because of racialized capitalism, it will almost always be black people.”
So while the Black Land and Liberation Initiative’s action Monday is about building communities, the larger mission is to confront the systems, institutions and people who built their wealth on the exploitation of black bodies and labor.
Speaking of wealth, just this month, the Federal Reserve announced that household wealth is up for the first quarter of this year, to $94.8 trillion. But rising tides have never lifted all boats. For every $1 of wealth the average black family has, the average white family has $13, a racial wealth gap that has grown since the Great Recession ended.
But the tropes that conservatives usually rely on to explain this disparity fall short. Here’s what doesn’t close the racial wealth gap, according to a 2017 report: attending college, working full time, spending less or raising kids in a two-parent household.
“We find that white adults who don’t graduate high school, don’t get married before having children, and don’t work full time still have much greater wealth at the median than comparable black and Latino adults — and often have more wealth than black and Latino households that have married, completed more education, or work longer hours,” wrote researchers in “The Asset Value Of Whiteness: Understanding The Racial Wealth Gap.”
Home ownership is often a path to wealth creation, but just over 40 percent of black people own their home, compared with 71 percent of white people.
Not surprisingly, the racial group that benefits most from the status quo believes little should be done. Just over 65 percent of black people but only 21 percent of white people believe the country’s wealth today is “significantly tied to work done by slaves,” according to a 2016 Marist poll. And 58 percent of blacks and 15 percent of whites believe the U.S. government should pay reparations to the descendants of slaves.
If what we’ve done has gotten us what we have, then it would take something almost unimaginable to repair the gap. Something like reparations. While reparations are usually visualized as a check for the descendants of African slaves, land is a suitable option, said Jeffries, who, with several others, started the first Juneteenth celebration in Lafayette, Indiana, 16 years ago.
Every year for more than 20 years, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, has introduced legislation to study the impact of slavery on African-Americans and suggest remedies — such as reparations.
His bill fails every year, and there’s no reason to think his 2017 bill will be the exception. Right? “I don’t see any reparations on the horizon,” said Jeffries, “but I didn’t see Obama on the horizon either.”