The name of this site has a new meaning for me tonight.
It’s Juneteenth, 2020. I live in one of the most historic neighborhoods in the country, fitting of this day, near U street in Washington D.C., the site of the race riots during the Civil Rights movement. I can see from my bedroom window the site of where people marched, cars burned, and stores were looted, an area that has not recovered from the devastation of those days even 50 years later. My first memory in the area is sitting at a bar watching the elections results come in when Obama was re-elected. The street was filled within minutes of the victory and the celebrations continued all night. And I was elated to be part of them.
Tonight feels different.
The world reels from months of COVID quarantining and the loss of half a million humans overnight. We miss human contact. We don’t know when we’ll see our friends and family. We are tired.
The U.S., along with other countries, reels from the tremendous racism that continues to rear its ugly head in our faces, made blatant by the senseless death of George Floyd and countless others. The Black community has endured centuries of unspeakable suffering. Those of us who see it and feel helpless by it are too enduring a kind of pain. We are tired.
Businesses have closed today. Major banks and companies have for the first time given their employees time to go “be” with Juneteenth, whatever that may mean for you. For the first time, many of us, including myself I’m ashamed to say, are asking and listening and learning what this day means in black culture.
If I had to sum it up in one word, for me Juneteenth is bittersweet. The kind of bittersweet that happens when you recall an old memory with a dear friend or a family member… you both begin to laugh, first a little and then a belly laugh you can’t control… when slowly in between the laughter you look up at each other and see tears, first happy tears and then real ones you can’t control… and then you finally embrace each other and fully give in to the deep, deep sadness the memory triggers.
The day the slaves were finally, fully freed is that kind of embrace. A victory burying a deep, deep sadness, as a matter of survival. Because the human spirit always chooses hope. Because the human spirit always chooses to believe in the presence of love. Because without hope and without love, the body begins to die from the inside out.
I experienced this embrace once as me and my sister watched a re-run of our national appearance on TV, and heard ourselves sharing our story of growing up in poverty as war refugees. We began by laughing about the blow-up mattress we used to sleep on… and the six of us sharing a one-bedroom basement apartment and how you had to make sure you didn’t step on anyone on your way to the bathroom (more laughter)… and the other apartments we lived in where you’d be greeted with a swarm of cockroaches if you woke up in the middle of the night and turned on the light to pee (tears of joy?)… and slowly found ourselves crying because no one in our family had ever uttered the words “poverty” or “war”. Maybe they hurt too much.
Bittersweet. A heart-felt embrace.
Tonight, as the fireworks go off near our house every few minutes, I sense a different tired in me. Yes I am tired of COVID, and all the grief from realizing our lives can change in an instant. Yes I am tired of racism, and all the suffering that living beings inflict on other living beings. And for the first time, I realize I am tired of living my life in a state of war. With every firework, my heart pounds. I turn to my wife, who is calmly reading in bed, for reassurance frequently. She smiles, and later announces that she is off to bed. “How can you sleep with these sounds?,” I ask. “Oh I’ll sleep fine. They won’t keep me up.” I wish I could say the same. Not only can I not sleep, but every blast will remind my spirit of a sadness that has been buried deep, deep within, as a matter of survival. Every blast reminds me of the sound of bombs and bullets of my youth. The nights of sleeping on stone-cold ground to minimize the chances of being hit. The stories I would overhear of people lost and families sleighed. The glances my parents exchanged when they didn’t want us to understand. The planning and the night we escaped.
And I realize in this moment, of laying next to a partner who comes from a different world, that I have spent my life hiding my wounds… I spend my days on high alert. No matter where I live or the circumstances, be it happy fireworks or an aircraft show or simply an evening stroll after a lovely dinner out, I am still that little girl who walks with one eye looking over her shoulder and sleeps with one eye open. And I am TIRED.
PTSD? Is that what they call it? We wouldn’t dare use the words or acknowledge the feelings. We’re lucky to have escaped. It would be ungrateful, and too risky, to share who we are, mention our past. We partner with others like us who know not to talk of those days. I broke that rule. We judge anyone who dares mention them, and label those as outcasts, weirdos, weak ones. We put on our masks for the rest of the world and blend in perfectly, like chameleons who sit quietly and anxiously as a snake slithers by. We do all this as a matter of survival. We dare not acknowledge it all, or we may fall apart.
Instead, we inadvertently pass on the wounds to our kids. We cut ourselves off from ever truly being loved. We ache in our hearts with wounds that we never tend to. We likely shave off a few years of our lives, living on high alert and constantly hiding our true selves.
In the end, is it really worth it? We’ll never know. It hurts too much to find out.
What I do know is that I’m fucking exhausted.
Happy Juneteenth everyone. May the future be bright. May you spread your wings and shine. May your light always guide us. May the love in your hearts flow without barriers. May it heal the wounds.