In light of the holiday Juneteenth, the day on which a vast body of enslaved black men, women and children were declared free from their white masters and captors, I wonder what the term really means. Not the word, ‘Juneteenth’, for that doesn’t mean anything at all, at least in an etymological sense. The word is a contraction of June and nineteenth, but who first contracted it is a mystery to me and Mr. Google, only that the contraction happened sometime in the late nineteenth century. Rather, I am more concerned and perplexed by the word freedom. What does it mean to be free?
Surely freedom means not having to pick another man’s cotton because he tells you to. That kind of freedom, freedom from being a working slave to a master, is what Juneteenth celebrates.
But there are other kinds of slavery. One is not altogether free if he must beg on the side of the street for his daily bread, like the emaciated black man I saw this morning at the corner of University Mall in Carbondale, holding a red sign beneath the traffic lights. Yes, of course, the man has the choice to stand at the corner and beg or go to a shelter and simply stand in line for some food. But I suspect that the thin and tired looking man did not look like that because he wanted food, at least not directly. He was most likely a drug addict and wanted money for more drugs.
The tragic irony is that the man I saw was literally drowning in a sea of prosperity, of currents of wealth and the means of material acquisition bustling all about him. Just across the road fifty feet away stood Taco Bell, where the man could have been hired on the spot for a team member position beginning at $14 dollars an hour, an entire dollar more than minimum wage. Assuming no overtime, speciality pay, etc., that is bringing home $29,120 a year. And did I mention Taco Bell offers free and discounted food and drinks for its employees?
But the chains that kept that man captive were invisible, and those prevented him from walking over to Taco Bell for a paycheck and a life off the street. Who put those chains on him, the white man? Hardly. What is more than likely, he put them on himself when he turned to drugs to escape a childhood full of pain, perhaps from an absent or drug-addict father who never taught him to be a man, let alone a free man.
Freedom means being free from things which hinder us from acting as we would like or ought to act. In early America, slavery took the form of forced work, chains, and the lash. Today, slavery takes the form of addiction, ignorance, and vice. In the days of early American slavery, one could hear a black man under a burning sun singing in some cotton field a hymn of hope and jubilee. That man, though a slave before man, was a freeman before God, and secretly he knew it, which is why he sang in the sun. On the other hand, the manacled black man of today thinks he is free, but he is enslaved by a thousand different chains which hinder his movements at every turn. He stands on the street corner looking pitiful and small and does not sing. He cannot walk fifty feet to a trendy, colorful and air-conditioned restaurant which will pay him almost $30,000 to do what he is already doing in the street and sun because his mind and will are enslaved.
Come to think of it, I cannot fully celebrate Juneteenth, because I am still waiting on the black man’s jubilee.