Some of my earliest memories of the concept of slavery were in elementary school, where it seems that I first heard that Lincoln freed the slaves. I heard it so much at an early age, if someone said, “Lincoln,” I would finish the sentence, “freed the slaves.” However, I was not the smartest kid in the room, and when I heard …” freed the slaves.” I imagined a bunch of people trapped in a giant cage, and Abraham Lincoln himself opened the door to the cage and let them out. I imagined the slaves to be long-haired, cavemen-like people who wore rags for clothes.
My thoughts were not nuanced at all. I did not know enough to think of cotton fields, beatings, maids, butlers, or mammies. Slaves were people who needed to be set free. If they needed to be set free, then they must have lived in cages instead of apartments. It was that simple.
It would be helpful at this point if I explained what I thought about White people. To me, White people were like every other people. They may have looked different than my family, but they were just other people. I noticed that people were of different colors and sizes, but they were still just people. Without the knowledge of American history, racism, and all that jazz, White people were like everyone else to me. Lions, tigers, and kittens were all different, but they were still all cats. There was no use for fear and hate. This was from the mind of a relatively sheltered preschooler.
Most of the people I came in contact with before going to school were Black people or Puerto Ricans. After all, I am from the Bronx. There were Asian people, and I could easily distinguish them from Black and White people and thought of Asians as Chinese people. I knew I was colored because that was what we called ourselves back then, and the word colored (not negro, African American, or Black) is on my New York City birth certificate. But I did not think of White people as white people. I called them plain people. They were not Black, Asian, or Puerto Rican. They did not look like us, but so what? White people were the television people that I watched daily. On television, it was a bunch of them! White people were everywhere; on the news, in the movies, on the cartoons, and the Saturday kiddie shows. Black people were all around me, and White people were on television. The rare time a Black person would appear on television, the occasional commercial or a Candid Camera episode, it was kind of a big deal.
I cannot pinpoint the time or context I found out that only people with skin like mine, colored people, were the only slaves (in America). However, I do remember the feeling that I had after learning this information. I was perplexed. Why would only Black people be slaves? Just us? WTF! However, before I completed elementary school, I was not only fully aware of the history of American slavery, but by the time I was in the 6th grade, I had been called nigger several times by members of the Belmont section of the Bronx. From a safe distance, I experienced the race riots that were taking place all across America and the racial strife that was taking place in my neighborhood. The innocence that covered my soul had dried up and peeled off, and I was left exposed to the bitterness and mistrust that racism creates.
My 5th-grade teacher from P.S. 67, Mrs. Alderdice, an Italian American who attended Power Memorial High school (with a guy named Lew Alcindor), introduced me to African American History. I remember her pulling a chair up next to my desk one day and almost whispering to me that I came from a long line of kings and queens from Africa. And that there were great kingdoms that Africans had ruled for hundreds of years. She asked me did I know any of that, and I told her no. Watching those black and white King Kong and Tarzan movies warped my view of Africa, and thanks to Mrs. Aldrdice, my eyes were opened to a new view of Africa that no one else had bothered to show me.
This history was good to know. I do not know why Mrs. Aldrdice decided to give me that information, but it made me see the world differently. My impression of Africa before Mrs. Alderdice was influenced by what I saw in movies and television. It was not a positive impression. After Mrs. Alderdice noticed my interest in the history of my people, she started teaching our entire class about African American history. That class consisted of White, Puerto Rican, and Black students. Mrs. Alderdice was way ahead of her time. Considering the controversy today about critical race theory, she was nothing less than a revolutionary educator.
By the time I attended high school, I was reading, experiencing, and influenced by Black Militancy through the rise and fall of the Black Panthers and the work of Martin Luther King. I carried the book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in my back pocket as if it was the bible.
I read as many books as I could about African American history, which strangely seemed to concentrate more on the Harlem Renaissance era and the usual suspects such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, and Countee Cullen, as well as the then-current Black Power movement. Schools did not teach us enough about the reasons for the Civil War and the awful reconstruction era that followed. Even though I did not have any African American History classes until I was a sophomore in high school, I falsely felt that I was an expert on the African American experience in America. African American history was one of the few classes I mastered in high school.
This is why it is surprising to me that I did not know about Juneteenth until I was 22 years old. In San Antonio in 1980, a friend of mine told me my birthday was the same day as Juneteenth. I had no idea of what Juneteenth was, and she explained it to me. She told me that it is a big deal in Texas. After all the books I read, I was shocked that Juneteenth was never mentioned in any book I ever read. I was ignorant of the fact about Juneteenth.
We tend to think of slavery as ancient history. But it is a lot closer than we generally believe. My great grandfather, Edward Small, was born in 1887 in New Orleans, and both of his parents were former slaves. I lived with my great grandfather, and I listened to his stories until I was 17. He lived through the times that we now read in history books, including the Red Summer, the Tulsa Massacre, and by the time he was 21 years old, over 2000 Blacks had been lynched across the country. My most crucial history resource was living, breathing, and talking in my own home. We ate together and sometimes we worshiped together. My great grandfather passed on the firsthand history he lived through to me in person, and that history is much nearer to us than most people think. We tend to forget about history and, in turn, miss out on learning not only about how we arrived where we are but we also miss out on the proper ways to move forward.
Juneteenth should be celebrated, but also it should be a somber reminder of the sacrifices that had to be made for us to survive. Juneteenth can serve as an annual re-boot of our collective memory of an era that many would like to erase. Now that Juneteenth is a national holiday, this part of our history will never be erased from the books and consciousness of all Americans.
On the morning of my 64th birthday, I woke up to the first-ever official Juneteenth Federal Holiday. If I ever had to pick a holiday to share my birthday with, this is definitely the one. I would have even picked this day over the MLK holiday. My birthday already has to compete with Father’s Day, which falls on my birthday every seven years, so sharing my birthday with Juneteenth is not a problem. Unlike the 4th of July Holiday, Juneteenth relates directly to me and my family history. From this day, I will celebrate this holiday enthusiastically, and I am not concerned about it overshadowing something as frivolous as my birthday.
For me, birthdays are not a time of partying. It is a day of spending time with the people I love. This birthday/Juneteenth afternoon, my three-year-old grandson and I took off our shirts, went out into the pouring rain, ate our favorite foods, and watched a basketball game. I explained Juneteenth to him. He did not understand, but I will continue until he eventually does. It was a great, memorable day. Next year, my birthday, Juneteenth, and Father’s Day are all on the same day, and I am looking forward to celebrating the day with the whole country.
I am looking forward to explaining to my grandchildren what this day means to all of us. In a way, June 19th is now the actual birthday of the whole nation. I’m good with that.