Juneteenth-Not Free by Tim Smith

Juneteenth-Not Free by Tim Smith

Today is Juneteenth, which is a holiday for some blacks (and other folks) who celebrate the emancipation of slaves-June, 19th. I don’t celebrate Juneteenth. Where I’m from most blacks don’t celebrate Juneteenth. When I moved to Atlanta, I noticed that blacks here celebrate Juneteenth; this was very peculiar to me. This is probably where I should state that I am black.

The maternal side of my family is from the South. My maternal grandparents lived a rural town. Most folks planted cotton and tobacco. My grandfather loved to tell me stories about farming: he enjoyed it, the country living. Sometime in the late 1950s, he and my grandmother decided that they would help register blacks to vote, something many white folks in their town weren’t prepared for. Previous volunteers who had helped register blacks to vote were chased out of town. The first clue that they wanted you out of town was the sudden and violent death of the family pet. If they thought you hadn’t received the message loud and clear, they would leave a burning cross on your property. My grandparents received their burning cross under their elevated house. My grandfather wasn’t going to give those men the satisfaction of killing his beloved collie, so he walked his dog out into the woods and shot her. That’s not freedom.

My grandfather moved the family to Brooklyn, New York. When my mom was growing up, the Black Power Movement resonated with her. She remembered when she got up North, her mother telling her: “Don’t look down when you talk to white folks, and don’t say, ‘yess-um, and no-sum,’ say, yes, sir and no, ma’am.” The Black Power Movement, specifically, the Black Panthers, were alluring to many blacks, because the Panthers said, “You have worth, you have a history, and you can be free.” That same message resonates with me, ‘I can be free,’ but I’m not, and neither are my people.

After slavery came sharecropping. Sharecropping was slavery by another name. It was marketed as freedom, but it was simply an illusion. After the emancipation of the slaves, the slaves should have been made as close to financially whole as possible. One of the first illusions of freedom was the promise of 40 acres and a mule. Very few families received such compensation. In fact, a common joke amongst older black folks is that, “They’re still waiting on their 40 acres and a mule.” So after slaves were given their “freedom,” they were left without any resources to start a new life. Their “previous” masters offered them a solution, “you work this land and give me a share of the crops, and you can stay on my land.” In fact, the North encouraged “ex-slaves” staying on and working the lands of the plantation owners. The Union’s very own General Gordon Granger (General Order #3)stated: “[…] between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, become that between employer and hired labor. The freed are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages.” Most slaves stayed, and those that could leave, only had enough resources to get as far as Washington, D.C.,. So, blacks began to sharecrop and the white landowners found a way to get more from the sharecroppers than what was due. The white landowners were dishonest, because they wanted cheap labor from blacks. My grandfather would tell me stories about black sharecroppers who tried to stand up to the white landowners and how hooded men would visit the black sharecroppers at night, sometimes they would be un-hooded and visit the black sharecroppers during the day. That’s not freedom.

When I left for college in the early 2000’s, my mom told me, “If the cops stop you, make sure they can see your hands, and obey whatever they say.” My college was on the black side of town, but my apartment was on the white side of town. I would trek every day to class from my apartment. After the second week of school, a cop followed me for a block or two. I mean, he literally rode behind me in his cruiser as I walked home. He finally stopped me and asked me, “Don’t I know you”?  He did that a couple of times more in the following weeks. This experience made me fearful and resentful of the police. I was trying to better my life, and here’s a cop with nothing better else to do than harass and intimidate me. That’s not freedom.

When my mom and grandfather were dropping me off for college, we got lost in an upper-income white neighborhood. We were in what some automobile enthusiasts would describe as an entry-level luxury car. A cop pulled us over, and he did not give a reason for pulling us over. In South Florida, my grandfather would have requested the cop state his reason for pulling us over, but my grandfather didn’t and his face relayed fear. This is was the first time I saw my grandfather convey an expression short of certainty and confidence. I knew it embarrassed and angered my grandfather to feel like a “boy.” I shared in his anger, not so much because the cop had offended me, but because he single handedly brought down the strongest man I knew, if only for a few moments. That’s not freedom.

One day while in college I was driving home to my townhouse, which was in an upper-income white neighborhood, a cop pulled me over. I asked her why she pulled me over and she replied that I had stolen my car. I assured her, that my mom gifted me the car for graduating, she said I was lying. The car was registered in my name and the insurance was up to date. She kept me on the side of the road for over 20 minutes and when she returned, she said her computer was down and that I could go. Don’t forget she accused me of stealing my car, the same car that she said I was “free” to drive home. That’s not freedom.


I love NYC, it’s a fun town. One day I was on the 6th train going into Manhattan and two cops boarded the train. My heart began to race because I wasn’t sure if I was dressed “white enough” not to be stopped and frisked. That’s not freedom.

Each day I work on my “caucasian” accent, so that when the cops pull me over, they don’t think of me as an “aggressive black male.” That’s not freedom.

Each time I get into my car, I remind myself not get reach for my insurance and car registration. I fear getting shot by the police for an ordinary traffic stop, because “The male was reaching for a gun.” That’s not freedom.

I don’t feel free, and that’s why I don’t celebrate Juneteeth.

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