Friday, June 19, 2020

Juneteenth in the Land of Immigrants

I'd like to tell you a story about immigrants.

Once upon a time, some people fled the country of their origin in search of a better life. They were being poorly treated by their government and didn't have as much freedom or as many resources as other people they knew about. They wanted better for themselves and their children.

The journey was hard, and some of them died on the way. But some of them made it.

They brought much with them. Their hopes, their dreams, their ideas, their hard work.

They were met by people already living there with a combination of hospitality, hatred, excitement, and fear. Resources were shared and cultures exchanged. Some of the immigrants also committed crimes, and made communities less safe. But the immigrants were also creators. They used their determination for a better life to build buildings, and farm fields, and expand economies. They were brilliant.

Unfortunately, the government was not very good to them. Their legal status wasn't clear, their rights not assured. Their labor was undervalued. This golden land of opportunity they dreamed of was not everything they had hoped.

The above can be read as the story of the DACA policy, which provides some support for immigrants in America, and is currently under threat even though it was partially protected by the Supreme Court this week. But it also serves as prelude to another immigrant group's story. So I'll continue theirs.

Yearning for opportunity, these immigrants took action to get more. And sadly, they were willing to do so by violently harming and using others. Those who had travelled in search of a better life began to take it from others through force. Resource sharing became resource stealing. They shoved aside the local people and bargained with the country they had emigrated from to enslave other people to build their cities and work their farms. Their dream for opportunities became greed, selfishness, and assumed superiority - a willingness to become the very thing they had fled.

Decades passed. The immigrants became second, third, fourth generation. Yet their ancestors' initial reason for fleeing their home was not forgotten, and they still were not granted full political or economic rights. So they began to be violent not only toward the locals and the people they'd enslaved, but their government. They rioted. They threw things in rivers, and burned cities, and killed people. They overthrew their rulers and created a new system with claims to equality, life, and liberty.

Tragically, the children of those immigrants didn't really mean equality for all. They meant rights for themselves, seeing themselves as 'more' human while they continued to horrifically use and abuse others. They forcibly relocated nearly all of the original inhabitants of their new country, killing thousands. They continued brutal systems of slavery, classifying people as property. But over time, some of them woke up. And they realised this was horrific, and they were doing what they had fought against. They wanted to make it stop.

It wasn't easy. Some of the immigrants' descendants formed a new government to ensure slavery would continue. Those on the side of humanity-over-profit claimed freedom for the slaves held by secessionists and won the ensuing war.

But by this time, the descendants of those immigrants had journeyed deep into their new country. Some of the secessionists lived very far away indeed, and had with them the people they'd enslaved. There was little enough government presence that they were able to continue practicing slavery.

That is the story of Juneteenth. On 19 June 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, an army general finally announced federal orders ending slavery in Texas. Slavery continued to be legally practiced in the Union border states until the Thirteenth Amendment passed another six months later - and even that did not universally abolish slavery, allowing for its use as legal punishment.

America is the land of immigrants, created by Britons who left an oppressive country seeking freedom only to become far more horrifically oppressive themselves.

America is the land of immigrants, but forcibly 'immigrated' 600,000 African slaves to that land. Half of that number were transported and kept in chains before 1776 and the country's founding. Slavery in America began four centuries ago, lasting from 1619 to 1865. Though most slavery was outlawed with the Thirteenth Amendment, but segregation was legally mandated shortly after the Civil War with horrific dehumanizing impacts and severe restrictions on the educational, economic, social, and political opportunities of anyone deemed as not "white". After two and a half centuries of zero rights, the Jim Crow era involved a century of minimal rights. And while the Civil Rights Movement accomplished much, Black people in the United States continue to be disadvantaged from centuries of their ancestors' oppression as well as continuing racial discrimination. America is not even sixty years into the right to vote - and just like slavery didn't end with the Emancipation Proclamation, Black voter suppression did not end with the Voting Rights Act, but continues to be practiced through a variety of intentional intimidation, logistical, and bureaucratic tactics.

America is the land of immigrants, but violently relocated indigenous communities, effectively making them 'immigrate' to designated zones so white colonizers could claim their land. The United States has and continues to treat Native American communities horribly - stripping them of life, home, culture, and history.

America is the land of immigrants, but met Irish, Eastern European, Asian, Latinx, and Arab newcomers - and continues to meet their descendants and so many others - with exclusion, disdain, and violence.

Today on Juneteenth, we celebrate the end of Black slavery in Texas and the progress we have made. But on this and every day, we must also recognise just how far we still have to go, and hold ourselves accountable. White America's racism means that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are disproportionately convicted of crimes - and thus are legally still subject to and experiencing forms of slavery and involuntary servitude today, in addition to the everyday microaggressions and systemic barriers faced through economic, social, and political disenfranchisement.

America, the land of immigrants, proclaims to the world "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

But for so many Americans, the reality is #ICantBreathe.

America. We yearn to breathe free. Lift your lamp.

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