Several years ago my husband and I had the amazing opportunity to travel in Norway. My mother’s family is Norwegian and I had been twice before, once as a small child when we visited my aunt’s family and again as an adult accompanying my beloved grandmother, Mor-Mor (mother’s mother), on her last trip to visit her sister.
The first leg of our journey took place aboard the Hurtigruten, the working mail boat that travels the west coast from Bergen to Kirkenes. Not a cruise as you might think of it, though we took excursions into some beautiful old cities and enjoyed spectacular views of landscapes that renewed my respect for these strong and hardy people.
We went in April because of the dramatic price break for off-peak travel. Most of the other passengers had come from Europe, many of them gregariously happy Germans.
Repeatedly, both on board and off, we heard devastating stories of the Nazis having bombed this cathedral, that city. I watched the German travelers for reactions and never noticed a cringe. Towards the end of the trip, I mustered the courage to gently ask them about it: How is it that you don’t seem bothered by the damage done by your country?
Education, they replied. Our history books tell the truth. We’ve worked hard to come to terms with what happened so that it will never happen again.
Rather than being offended, they were glad I asked. In fact, they took the opportunity to school me: they knew how little truth our U.S. history books contain, how our leaders and educational system have glossed over so many atrocities committed by our country.
I wasn’t taught about Juneteenth, that it took close to two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation for slaves in Texas to be freed. I was taught that slavery was cruel but that it ended, and almost nothing about the lingering cruelty. What I was taught about the Civil Rights Era came almost entirely without context. Why were separate bathrooms and drinking fountains such an issue? For that matter, I live in California where generations of kids have been taught a romantic vision of the California Missions and not the truth of coerced religious conversion and forced labor of indigenous people.
I’m grateful to be learning the truth, hard as it is.
President Obama posted on Twitter today: Juneteenth has never been a celebration of victory, or an acceptance of the way things are. It’s a celebration of progress. It’s an affirmation that despite the most painful parts of our history, change is possible––and there is still so much work to do.
Change is possible… Yes, please.
I recently spent some time on the Poetry Foundation website reading works by BIPOC, including this one that seems appropriate for today:
Lift Every Voice and Sing
By James Weldon Johnson
A group of young men in Jacksonville, Florida, arranged to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercises. I wrote the words and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children.
Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.
The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.
To hear John Legend sing the Black National Anthem, click here.
For more on Juneteenth, click here.
Cover image by Wynn Pointaux from Pixabay