Reflecting on Juneteenth
As we commemorated Juneteenth, which marks the day when the news of the emancipation finally reached the slaves in Galveston, Texas, in 1865, I reflected on what Black Lives Matter means to me.
I would like to introduce you to Jessie Fore, my mother, who was in her teens when this photo was taken. Jessie was born in New Jersey during the Great Depression. Her mother, who did not complete elementary school, worked as domestic help and did laundry for others in the evening. Her father eventually found work as a railcar porter.
When her parents separated, Jessie left high school and went south to help relatives pick cotton on land they did not own. Jessie eventually returned to New Jersey where she worked as domestic help.
A devout Catholic, she attended Christ the King Church, a Jersey City parish for African Americans, whenever she could. If she attended other Catholic churches, she had to sit in the back of the church and receive communion separately from white parishioners.
Jessie went on to get married in the church on her lunch break. No flowing gown and veil for my mother. She wore her Sunday suit to marry and have her photo taken, then removed it to return to work. No honeymoon. She and my father lived in the Currie’s Woods housing development, which was known as “the projects.” There, she hosted afterschool and summer programs for children in the projects. She gave birth to four children. One child died during childbirth. Jessie died in childbirth with her last child –me. Leaving behind three motherless children and a bereaved spouse, she received a Mass of Christian burial and was interred.
There is nothing illustrious in Jessie’s story. It is so mundane that it reads like the lives of so many Black women of her era. At each juncture of her life, institutionalized racism snipped away opportunities and traded youthful hopefulness for racial disparities in housing, education, employment, and healthcare. On her shoulders, she struggled to balance the load of her own difficulties with those of generations of people before her who endured slavery on tobacco and cotton plantations, Jim Crow repression, poverty, and exclusion.
By the time I was 5, I learned to respond to adult questions about my mother with “My mother died in childbirth with me.” People would ask incredulously, “Here? In the U.S. In a hospital?” At the time, I did not know that Black women of all classes have a disproportionately high rate of maternal mortality. I had not formally learned about the socioeconomic factors that lead to poorer health outcomes for women of color and their children. I had not studied statistics of Black poverty rates and environmental injustice. Yet, since conception, I have carried Jessie’s burden and that of many generations before her.
What would Jessie say if she were alive today to witness the disparities and injustices still occurring? Would she rub her eyes in disbelief, thinking that she has stepped back in time? Would she be angered to know about the disproportionate number of Black and Latinx incarcerated people who leave behind broken homes and communities? Would she celebrate the fact that more white people were speaking out against racial and social injustice than ever before? I have no idea.
I would like to think that my mother’s faith would be buoyed by changes that have occurred in my lifetime. This would be something we could both share. Yet, part of me wonders how long Black people will have to wait for our liberation from the shackles of inequality. Will there ever be a modern-day General Order No. 3 that proclaims an end to the toll of institutionalized racism? Like those enslaved people in Texas in 1865, Jessie, and all Black people have waited too long for their freedom.
We are still waiting.