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One Juneteenth (For Butterfly McQueen)

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Lawdy, Lawdy! De white folks done discovered Juneteenth! Dat’s de holiday persons of cullud out in Texas made to mark de date de slaves out dere foun’ out Abe Lincoln done signed the ’Mancipation Proclamation. Dat wuz back in 1863, but de slaves doan find out ’til 1865. It 2020, but de white folks jes’ findin’ out. Dey all het up ’bout it. You shoulda heard de nice white lady on de classical music station sayin’ she done benched Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms to play Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Florence Price, an’ Marian Anderson ’cause it be June 19, so we celebratin’ “the end of slavery in the U. S.”

Ah wuz gone call in an’ tell her it wuzn’t de whole U. S. Dat Proclamation did diddly for de slaves in Delaware an’ Missouri. Dred Scott dead but de rest had to wait ’til December 18. Did a lotta good down here, though, after de Yankees come in 1864 an’ tore de place up. Ah didn’t call ’cause nice white folks be fragile. If dey got de details crooked, an’ a person of cullud sets dem straight, dere minds go to flinders an’ de person of cullud liable to get cut by de shards.’Bout ten years ’fore dat Proclamation, Fred Douglass gone ask de white folks, “What, to the slave, is your 4th of July?” Dey so broke up dey wouldn’t let him speak ’til de Fifth. 

Las’ year, mos’ white folks never heard a Juneteenth. Mos’ persons of cullud, neither. Dis year, de white folks “on board,” as dey say. Dey takes a dey off fo’ de Fourth; now dey wants Junteenth off, too. But de boss sez Ah got to work both days, ’cause Ah’s “essential.”

I doubt dem persons of cullud in Texas could afford to take Juneteenth off. One minute dey fine out dey ain’t been slaves for two years an’ a half. Next minute, dey fine out dey “hired labor” an’ got to work fo’ wages. Next minute, dey fine out massa de “employer” an’ set de wage. Den he say he own de cabins so dey got to pay rent. Ah wonder, did dem persons of cullud get two years an’ a half years back pay? Ah do not think so. 

Ask me, Ah think de white folks on board cause dey bored wid workin’ from home. ’Course, dey in de cabin, not de hold. But dey dey respondin’ to what dis patter-rollers done up in Minneapolis, which wuz put his knee on de neck of a unarmed, handcuffed person of cullud for ’bout nine minutes. 

Persons of cullud know dis de same ole, same ole. Patter-rollers been puttin’ knees on necks since Joshua 10:24. Ten years back dem Minneapolis patter-rollers done de same thing, ’cept it was only fo’ minutes. De video wuz shaky, but you could hear one patter-roller callin’ his wife, sayin’ he be late fo’ dinner ’cause he think he jes’ kilt a guy. Dat de same ole, same ole, too. 

White folks think what on T.V. be what de patter-rollers do for real. Chicago PD come close, wid dat cage in de cop shop basement, but dere’s lotsa cages in lotsa basements, an’ not jes’ in Chicago. White folks think de patter-rollers cover up, but when dey kill a person of cullud, dey want all de persons of cullud to know. Communication essential one a Ten Principles of Community Policin’. 

White folks think dey read all about it in de newspaper or in de conclusions of de ’vestigation. But de ’vestigation, if dere is one, starts wid what de patter-rollers say in dere reports. Dere’s dis outfit down in Texas dat makes a livin’ tellin’ patter-rollers what to say to make what dey done match what de Supreme Court say it okay to do. Patter-roller ain’ got nothin’ but a G.E.D., but in de report he soun’ lak Scalia or Clarence Thomas, so das de end of it… ’less dere’s video.

Das what happen out in L.A., thirty years back. De T.V. station got a video tape of ’bout a dozen patter-rollers beatin’ the cullud out of a person thereof an put it on de air ’cause if it bleeds, it leads. White folks so het up dey put de patter-rollers on trial. Ah wouldn’t’a believed it, ’cept I saw it on Court T.V. Didn’t matter, ’cause de all white-folks jury sez Not guilty. Persons of cullud in L.A. disagreed, but dey wuz speakin’ de language of de unheard.

Dat person of cullud did not die. Dis time, de person of cullud in Minneapolis did. Dis time dere wuz good video. De white folks see de man die on de cell phone, six inches from dere faces, an’ you shoulda seen dem faces. Ah’m sorry he dead, but Ah did enjoy seein’ white folks shocked white. 

What shocked me wuz dat, even when de white folks join de protest, de patter-rollers never missed a beat-down. Dey knockin’ down young white girls an’ ole white men an’ jes’ keep on steppin’. A couple got suspended, an’ dere friends up an’ quit — Ah ’spect dey hired on at de penitentiary — but mos’ of ’em didn’t even take dere day off ’cause dey havin’ too much fun throwin’ tear gas grenades an’ shootin’ rubber bullets.

Down here in Atlanta, a person of cullud wuz sittin’ in his car. He blockin’ traffic, but he ain’ hit nothin’. Patter-roller say, Park de car over dere. Person of cullud parks de car over dere. Patter-roller say, Get out de car. Person of cullud gets out de car. Patter-roller does de frisk, don’t find no nothin’, but he sez, Hands behin’ yo back, an’ pulls out de cuffs. Person of cullud runs. 

White folks wonder, Why he run? Could be he rememberin’ dat person of cullud in Minneapolis wuz cuffed ’fore dey put de knee on his neck. Could be he rememberin’ de “Handcuffed Houdini” in Louisiana dat shot hisself wid both han’s cuffed behind his back, or de one in Arkansas, done de same. Could be he rememberin’ dat “Patter-Roller Song.” In da song, he get away. In Atlanta, he got two bullets in de back. Wuzn’t rubber, neither.

White folks talkin’ ’bout change. ’Bout defundin’ patter-rollers, or gettin’ rid of ’em, ’cept in dere neighborhood, Ah ’spect. Ah say, change de uniform. If a patter-roller say he shot some unarmed body ’cause he in fear fo’ his life, make him wear yellow. An’ Ah say, make orange de new blue. 

Ah thinks, when white folks sez change, dey mean rebrand. Dey put dat “Patter-Roller Song” on Youtube, an’ lef’ out de words ’cause dey offensive, but dey kept de music an’ calls it “a traditional Southern Appalachians folk tune.” White folks at Mars Foods say bein’ converted ain’ enough; Uncle Ben got to “evolve.” White folks at Quaker Oats gone take Aunt Jemima off de box. Ah wonder if dey gone take dat ole white man off de box? An’ goin’ forward, as dey say, are dey gone be Friendly Oats?

Ah do lak seein’ de kids out dere pullin’ down statues together, as dey say. It definitely a step up from jes’ marchin’ aroun’ singin’ “We Shall Overcome.” Ah’d be out dere wid dem if Ah wasn’t essential. ’Course dere ain’t no point to it. Those folks be dead an’ gone, to Hell, if dat’s God’s Judgment. De evil do live after dem, but it ain’t in de statues, it in de statute books. I understand, de kids read Harry Potter, so think dey can make things different wid dat obliviate charm. What Ah doan understand is, why dey so down on Christopher Columbus? Chris claim de lan’, but he say, treat de people right, so dey convert to Catholics. Ah think de kids got Chris confused wid his brother, Bart; he de one stole de gold an’ de canoe, lef’ his baby-momma an’ sailed to Africa. 

But frankly, ma dear, Ah don’t give a damn ’bout nobody’s graven image. De Book say dey an abomination unto the LORD. But some white folks all het up ‘bout what de kids doin’. Ah doan know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ no babies, but Ah do know de kids ain’ to blame. If dey wrong, dey been confused by de “progressive pedagogy.” When Ah wuz finishin’ school, ’rithmetic was gettin’ progressed into New Math, an’ de kids behin’ me couldn’t read a clock or make change of a dollar. Now I hear history been progressed into “Social Emotional Learning.” De kids think de “n-word” sinful, ’less it in a rap, but dey doan know where de word come from. De only river in Africa dey know ’bout be de Nile.

Dis get worse if dey go to college. Textbooks say dere ain’t no difference ’tween de shadow an’ de act. If dey kids of cullud, dey know better, but dey still got to pass de test. If dey wants be a perfesser of cullud dey got to lose dere motherwit to get dat Ph.D. But sooner or later some nice white lady gone see dem goin’ into a house in her neighborhood an’ call de patter-rollers. De patter-roller might call dem “Sir” or “Ma’am” but he ain’t gone call dem Perfesser, an’ he gone keep one han’ his gun, an’ make dem prove dey be what dey been workin’ dere whole life tryin’ to be, an’ if dey gets upset he gone whip out de cuffs an’ write in de report dat de use of force wuz justified ‘cause dey “exhibited a tumultuous manner.” Dey wouldn’t let me in a college ’cept to wax de flo’, an’ Ah sho’ doan read no textbooks, but Ah know de Book say de kingdom is not in word, but in power.

But white folks love de words. Dey keep sayin’ we in dis virus thing together.We ain’t been together since dey united de states. De Constitution say dere’s “free Persons” an’ “all other Persons.” De Supreme Court say de word “citizen” don’t include persons of cullud. When de person of cullud come here from Alabama wid de Compromise, sayin’ we can be separate as de fingers on de han’ an’ persons of cullud doan need no opera, de white folks say okay, if it de lef’ han.’ Now dey on board wid Juneteenth ’cause it separate from de Fourth, an’ ’stead hem-hawin’ ’bout de Declaration dey can shout ’bout de Proclamation. Nemmine dat de day ’fore he sign dat Proclamation he sign a contract shippin’ persons of cullud to Haiti. Old Abe always been de go-to guy.

Eighteen seventy-six. Centennial celebration. Mistuh Lincoln, he dead, but dere’s a statue: Old Abe wid dat Proclamation in his hand an’ a person of cullud at his feet. De person of cullud on one knee, but back den white folks doan find dat disrespectful. When dey do de dedication dey let Fred Douglass speak. It Good Friday so I guess dey figure Fred gone ’jes tote dat Cross up dat hill. Big mistake. Fred set dem white folks straight

Nineteen thirty-nine. Daughters of de American Revolution say Constitution Hall “not available” for a concert by Marian Anderson. Go to de Lincoln Memorial. A new statue, Old Abe nineteen feet tall even though he sittin’ down. Marian Anderson standin’ up, white columns ’round her, like she in a cage. So she close her eyes and starts wid “America.” She ends wid “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See.” But in between, she sing Donizetti. An’ she shame de birds.

Nineteen sixty-three. Persons of cullud comin’ to D.C. to cash Ole Abe’s check. De Archbishop on board. But den he hear John Lewis gone say patience a dirty word, an’ threaten to jump ship ’cause he say Catholics believe in the word patience. John Lewis take dat part out. Go to the Lincoln Memorial. Ole Abe, a hunnert and seventy tons a white Georgia marble, overseein’. Patter-rollers hidin’ behind him, in case dey need to pull de plug. John Lewis, he lay low. Mahlia Jackson mumble gospel. She alright, but she ain’ no Marian Anderson. Martin Luther King do “America” his way. He got dat cross scar remindin’ him, so he end wid de spiritual dat make dyin’ soun’ like ’Mancipation.

Twenty twenty. Can’t go to de Lincoln Memorial, so get on board wid Juneteenth. But Ah wonder, do de lil’ children know what Fred Douglass say ’bout Ole Abe? An’ Ah wonder, what Juneteenth got to do wid patter-rollers?

Patter-rollers started in slavery days. Didn’t need no #blacklivesmatter den; slaves cost money. Slaves wuz money. Patter-roller catch de runaway, maybe rough him up some, but if a patter-roller kill a slave, dat patter-roller’d have to pay. Dese days, da city pays; ten years back, Minneapolis paid three million dollars. ’Course de lawyers took two. But Ah wonder, did da city take de money out de patter-roller pension fund? Ah do not think so. 

Ma point is, ain’t no slavery dese days. Ah calls maself a wage-slave, sez ma boss a slave-driver, but Ah ain’t bein’ literal. Ah can quit if Ah wants. Ah get time-and-a half for overtime. So why Ah got to deal wid patter-rollers? 

De college textbooks sez words offensive. What Ah finds offensive is havin’ to be on de lookout for patter-rollers when Ah ain’t broke no law, an’ havin’ to remind maself, if dem red-white-an’-blue lights come on, to say Yes, officer, No officer, an’ doan get tumultuous an’ say Yes, dis ma car, an’ dis ma damn driveway, an’ dis ma goddamn house…

Ah’m sorry. Ah’m glad Ah’m essential. Ah ’preciate de overtime. But Ah gets flashbacks. Every time da boss ask, can Ah work late, Ah remember. Every time Ah’m drivin’ home late, Ah remember. Every time Ah parks in de drive at midnight, Ah got to set still ’til ma heart slows down, ’cause Ah remember when Ah was in fear fo’ ma life.

Ah can’t think ‘bout dat no more now. It bedtime. Tomorrow be another day. Ma ‘larm go off — Brrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinng — an’ Ah got to get up an’ kill dat rat. It be Saturday, so de Metropolitan Opera be on de classical station. Dey wouldn’t let Marian Anderson sing dere either ‘til 1955, an’ den dey made her play de witch in Un Ballo in Maschera. But long ‘fore dat dey had persons of cullud playin’ ’Gyptians, ’cause if you gonna do Aida right, good ’Gyptians be essential. Tomorrow, it ain’t Aida, it Akhnaten. Dat ’Gyptian, too, but it Philip Glass. He alright, but he ain’ no Verdi. An’ dere won’t be no hot cakes fo’ breakfas’; Aunt Jemima free at last. No cream of wheat neither. But de N.A.A.C.P. swear, by suppertime, we gone have Success rice.

David Bradley is the author of the novelsSouth Street and The Chaneysville Incident and a winner of the O. Henry Award.

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