Juneteenth – A New Liberation
June 19, 2020
by Eric Ritter
On May 8th, 1985, West German President Richard von Weiszäcker stepped onto a podium in Bonn, the nation’s capital. It was the 40th anniversary commemoration of the end of the Second World War. Weiszäcker, a German army war veteran, had also been involved in several attempts to assassinate Hitler. He watched his brother die on the Eastern front, holding his brother’s lifeless body through the night, until he could bury him in the morning. Weiszäcker – a Nazi army officer, a would-be Hitler assassin, a family man – represented West Germany’s collective memory of the war. It was like the Nazi era was just a small blip on the screen of an otherwise heroic national history. Such a selective memory may sound familiar.
You can see him there — clearing his throat, moving the microphone closer, hesitating slightly. There’s a thoughtfulness in his mannerisms. His famous speech would help shift the way West Germans thought about themselves, about their history, and about their future. “For us, the 8th of May is above all a date to remember that people had to suffer,” he began. So far, so good: the suffering was immeasurable on both sides, his audience would have been quick to say. But then he went on.
It is also a date to reflect on the course taken by our history. The greater honesty we show in commemorating this day, the freer we are to face the consequences with due responsibility.
These words had stingers. Many of the men and women in the audience had either served in the war or had family members who did. They had invested themselves deeply in the idea of an unvarnished, if briefly troubled and distant, past. But president Weiszäcker invited the country to creatively face their responsibility for the Nazi past. He invited them to acknowledge the past as incomplete and confront the ways it continued to haunt the present.
Yet with every day something became clearer, and this must be stated on behalf of all of us today: the 8th of May was a day of liberation.
With this, Weiszäcker became the first West German politician to call the Nazi German defeat, a day of liberation. As Susan Nieman writes: “Imagine Virginians celebrating the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, and you’ll have a rough idea of the effect.”
For many Germans, what gradually emerged from President Weiszäcker’s speech were the seeds of collective responsibility. Not guilt — which is just the shadow of responsibility, but a working-off-the-past, as the Germans say. It’s a reimagination of what the country stood for under the Nazi regime, might stand for, could stand for.
Breaking the Dam
After Weiszäcker speech, the dam of denial began to break down. This was true in the country’s schools and universities, and in the federal government most of all. Denial is more than just an absence of knowledge, a form of ignorance. Denial is a form of knowing and not knowing at the same time. James Baldwin liked to call it a willful ignorance. Slowly but surely, after Weiszäcker’s speech, it became more difficult for Germans to live in denial. The federal government demanded a creative and ongoing confronting of the Nazi past.
It takes energy to maintain a collective fiction, whether in Germany or in the United States. Weiszäcker’s renarration of the end of the Second World War forged the road to another form of liberation. He invited people to confront what the nation and the war had actually been about. He opened them to the ways in which the Nazi past informed the German present. Yet, Weiszäcker was not demanding guilt or self-negation. On the contrary, he was inviting his countrymen to free themselves from conveniently misremembering and misidentifying themselves.
June 19, 1865. Gordon Grange, Union army general and newly appointed commander of the District of Texas, announced General Order No. 3, declaring that all enslaved persons in Texas were now free, according to the law. The order came two and a half years after the Civil War ended. President Lincoln already had proclaimed the emancipation of all slaves in the United States. Yes, Texas had been slow to deliver on the already declared freedom of Back people.
Today, 155 years to the day later, the United States is still slow to deliver on the already declared freedom of Black people. With that, America has been slow to deliver on its own freedom. Yes, the liberation of White America is wrapped up in the liberation of all Americans. But, will today, Juneteenth 2020, mark a day of liberation — for us all? We all feel it. The polls confirm it. The dam, the wall. Something toxic and lifeless is possibly breaking in this country; false idols, in the form of statues, are crumbling. But unlike West Germany in 1985, the possibility of our collective liberation has not been sparked by our government leaders. Instead, countrymen of color, especially Black America, have led protests against the government.
Finally Free…for real this time?
“We are having a moment,” Wesley Morris recently said, opening his wonderfully entertaining cameo episode on the “The Daily” podcast. “A large, seismic, unpredictable, everchanging, moment. And I have just been holding onto all these images. These videos of people, Black men and women, on the streets, screaming into people’s cameras about how fed up they are with this entire situation. And everything you know as a Black person in the United States of America, everything you’ve felt, everything you’ve been made to feel: you feel it in your heart, but you’ve got to persevere; you’ve got to keep going.”
An echo strikes me in Wesley Morris’s words. I hear how the particular past of Black Americans has forced them to creatively persevere. This perseverance has taken the form of music, art, sports, science, economics, dance, religion, and philosophy. Yet, White America has, with indulgence, enjoyed, even stolen, these fruits of that perseverance, while conveniently denying the experiences that produced it.
As Weiszäcker did for the Germans, so the George Floyd social movement may do for us. Today, Juneteenth, is a question mark. I do not by any means have answers. But, for all of us, and White Americans in particular, to work off our past, we first need to listen. Of course this is true for any human relationship where people respect difference. For centuries, many people have been fighting for change and justice. Yet, so often, their voices and stories have been crowded out by willful ignorance. We should have heard them long ago. But now is the time to listen actively by reading, watching, protesting, donating, volunteering, and dialoguing.
My aim is for this virtual space to serve as an unusual kind of creative gallery. I want to curate those voices and their efforts. I will showcase their fighting, filming, writing, painting, crafting, legislating, strategizing, and organizing. You will see transformative forms of justice in the greater Nashville community. We will try and present these new and inspiring approaches to justice in an engaging, inviting way. I hope that reading what we post here will not be easy. We will try and sprinkle in some humor. If we can learn to listen to those fighting for a reimagined state of society, it will be worthwhile, leaving you more humanized. Justice will be reimagined.
This is Eric Ritter’s first post (of many more!) as the Social Justice and the Arts Fellow at Raphah Institute. He is a visiting scholar at Vanderbilt University. You can reach him at email@example.com, especially about future ideas for the curation of this space.
**Many thanks to Sabeen Ahmed and Travis Claybrooks for their collaborations, edits and suggestions on this post. Of course all shortcomings are solely my own.