Juneteenth — Where Do We Go From Here?

Yolanda Savage-Narva

Due to a technical issue, the audio of Ms. Savage-Narva’s talk at Juneteenth Shabbat@WHC was not recorded. The following is a transcript of her remarks.

By Yolanda Savage-Narva
Vice President of Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (REDI), Union for Reform Judaism

According to an excerpt from Moving Toward Black Freedom: The Long Emancipation by Rinaldo Walcott, “The problem of emancipation is central to the condition of Black life. I wanted to call our repeated attention to the substantive difference between the legislative nature of emancipation and the problem of a freedom that is yet to come. I have argued that post-emancipation acts of Black life have been consistently interdirected, thereby preempting and often violently preventing Black life from authorizing its own desires for bodily autonomy. Stuck in the process of fully breaking from the logics of slavery and plantation economy. The phrase the long emancipation does not simply suggest that Black people are still enslaved, but rather it insists that Black people continually are prohibited and interdirected from authorizing what exactly freedom might look like and mean for them collectively.”

As we commemorate and celebrate Juneteenth this year, I am reminded that freedom, true freedom, is a moving, complex target. The fullness of freedom, one that includes a liberation of the mind, body, spirit, and soul is possible, BUT only if we work together so that everyone can achieve it. Only if we are willing to give something up for it, and only if we understand that we ourselves can only obtain the mind, body, spirit, and soul elements of freedom when others have access to it as well. “Because none of us are free until all of us are free.”

I want to thank the Washington Hebrew Congregation family for inviting me to be here with you tonight. I’ve been in your beautiful sanctuary three times recently, and each time I’ve been made to feel more than just welcome, I’ve been made to feel like I belong; how special it is. I do not take it for granted.

A special thank you to the clergy and team for such a warm and thoughtful introduction. And I also have some special shout-outs I want to give tonight to both Linda Adams and Joshua Maxey for planning and sharing your vision of what you wanted this special evening to look like. Thank you to the talented musicians, you have made tonight extra special, everyone behind the scenes; technical support, and all who are making all of this come together. Many thanks to all of you in the audience, both in-person and virtual-thank you so much for being here, and last but most certainly not least, my husband Andrew Narva and my son Miles Narva who sacrifice their time and support me through this journey that I’m on, that I have been called to be on by our creator and my ancestors. Thank you All!

My name is Yolanda Savage-Narva (she/her) pronouns, I am wearing a cream-colored dress with green prints for those with visual impairments and I am the V.P of REDI and COB for the Reform Movement.

I do not know if you know this or not, but right here where I am standing, where you are sitting, where this building stands was once the ancestral tribal land of the Pamunkey and Piscataway people. It is a custom for me and important as well to acknowledge the land that I am on when I introduce myself, no matter where I go, because it is critical for us to pause and think about the things that happened before any of us were here. It is humbling to pause and think about how the land and the trees and the very nature we are surrounded by are the keepers of all the stories of the previous lives lived by those who once inhabited this land. The land that we call the United States, is known as Turtle Island by our Indigenous siblings.

Turtle Island! Let’s go back in time for a moment. I invite you to close your eyes or do what you need to do to picture Turtle Island prior to 1492. When tens of thousands of Indigenous peoples inhabited North America, Middle America, the Caribbean, the Andes, the South Atlantic, basically the entire Western Hemisphere. Pre-1492 it is estimated that there were between 8-112 million Indigenous people living in these regions. With researchers settling on the number forty million in North America. And then our white explorers; thieves and pillagers began coming to these shores; discovering a land, a culture, a people that was already well into its own groove. People like Lief Erikson, Christopher Columbus, and Amerigo Vespucci (America is named after him), to name a few. We do not know the actual number of Indigenous people who were here when Columbus arrived in 1492, but by the end of the Indian War in the 19th century only about 238,000 Indigenous people remained. They were struck down by war, disease, and displacement. Europeans’ plans to enslave the Indigenous peoples backfired because they decimated the population, so they had to look elsewhere for more riches and labor. They found both riches and free labor on the continent of Africa and as a result, the transatlantic slave trade was born. The first documented ship arrived on the shores of Jamestown, Virginia on August 20, 1619. We know that the combined years of the transatlantic slave trade, outlawed in Congress in 1808 and the domestic slave trade, where the enslaved population tripled over the next 50 years, resulted in millions of people over the period of 250 years being enslaved or indentured.

It is important to note that enslavement was not just a function of the dysfunction of the deep South. During the transatlantic slave trade, many states in the North either had slaves or contributed to the infrastructure of slavery. An example of this took place right on the very soil we are living on. As I said earlier, the land, the trees, they know stories. They have absorbed the blood, sweat, and tears of previous lives. Washington D.C. became known as a major depot in the domestic slave trade. And that is all because of a place called the “Yellow House.”  A place just half a mile west of the U.S. Capitol, and just south of the National Mall (and today, across the street from the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden). Where slave owners paid twenty-five cents a day for an enslaved person to be held until shipped off — often down South. Often these Yellow Houses were for people who were trying to escape enslavement and those who would be held there until further notice.

As Jews, with our own unique proximity to pain and trauma, we have, throughout history experienced the worst of what humanity has had to offer. Particularly, since October 7th, the complexity, and the intersecting identities of being a Jew in this county and this world has taken on a new meaning. As we wrestle with multiple truths; advocating for our own humanity and the right to exist, fighting for the humanity of others here and all over the world is not a new phenomenon for us, it is what we have always done. We have had the bandwidth and resiliency, and our sacred text and Jewish values, to have the stamina and flexibility to hold the diversity of narratives all at once. We know how to stand proud and strong in support of our Israeli family and demand the return of our hostages, mourn and be horrified by the humanitarian crisis and innocent lives being taken away in Gaza, the genocide in Sudan, the civil unrest in Haiti, displacement of millions in the Congo, the war in Ukraine, the war on democracy here in the U.S., the rise of antisemitism, the persistent, daily scourge of racism, the obvious climate change challenges and many other things. And despite these things, I am reminded time and time again how we turn the pain into purpose, and we turn that purpose into progress, not just for the Jewish community, but for every community. We recognize the spark of the divine in each person, which is what brings us here, together right now in this sacred place, in this unique sacred moment.

For many years, Black communities celebrated the holiday, unofficially, but on June 17th, 2021, President Joseph R. Biden, made Juneteenth a federal holiday. Acknowledging the harm that this country has done and helping us celebrate the beauty of our existence and that our government has taken responsibility in a small way gives me a sense of pride and hope that we can continue to do what is good and what is right.

I know we are all planning to observe Juneteenth to some degree next week, but has anyone ever wondered more about the holiday? For example, what is Juneteenth, exactly? Where did the name come from? Why do we need it? What do we have as Jews, as people with a past, to tap into in this moment to help us navigate our world? How can we use the foundation of Juneteenth to create vibrant communities of belonging? And where do we go from here?

Let’s answer some of those questions:

What is Juneteenth? On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which effectively freed enslaved persons in the Confederate states during the Civil War. Get this! Enslavers were responsible for telling enslaved people they were free, but many ignored the order.

Texas was the last Confederate state to announce the proclamation. It happened on June 19, 1865, two and a half years earlier (I often wonder if they would have ever told them). The holiday observes the freedom of those in Texas who did not know they were free; the last of us, because none of us are free, until we are all free.

Where did the name come from? Combination of the freedom month of June and the date 19. Juneteenth.

Why do we need it? Because we need to be reminded about who we are. There are many folks out there in our world who are working with all their energy and resources to erase history, just pretend it never happened. When we do that, we erase the experiences and the ever-present trauma people carry in their DNA. Slavery was a vocational exercise, some people say. If you visit most plantations and antebellum homes in the South; the people giving the tours talk about the dinner parties, the dishes, and the dresses they wore; barely mentioning the enslaved peoples who made their establishments run. And as Jews, we know first-hand what it feels like to have history denied.

What do we have as Jews, as people with a past, people of the book to tap into this moment that we are living in to help us navigate our world?

Last year at the March on Washington, I talked about the power of our memories and imaginations. I keep coming back to this theme. We should tap into the collective power of memory and imagination.

Toni Morison once said, “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”

When I tap into memory, I instantly connect with my ancestors.

My ancestors, my four grandparents, who I had a chance to meet have passed on lessons to me while they and through the blood pulsing through my body.

Estelle, my maternal grandmother, and the first to leave Turtle Island. Much of what I learned from Estelle happened through sheer observation. She always treated people with an extraordinary amount of kindness. She had a gentle, calming spirit.

Freddie, my paternal grandfather, would be the next one of the four to leave Turtle Island. Freddie is the grandparent; I knew the least about. My memory of him is that he was a proud man. He made big mistakes during his life, but despite these, he held his head up high and tried to right his wrongs.

Ruby, my paternal grandmother left Turtle Island when I was an adult. Ruby raised ten children (9 boys and one girl) by herself. Ruby was very resourceful. Ruby was a fighter in her own way. She taught me what it meant to be strong and resilient no matter the circumstances.

And finally, Walter, my paternal grandfather left Turtle Island when he was 95 years old, only two years ago. I was fortunate to have a lot of time with Walter. Walter had a beautiful, fun spirit. He got so much joy out of the simple things, like watching my husband and son eat during Thanksgiving. He taught me to find my inner Drishti! He got all that he could out of life; it was a joy to bear witness.

Every one of them walks with me daily. The memories of who they are are forever etched in my soul. I can hear them whispering in my ear; it is your turn, write your story, be the ancestor you want to be. I can feel the drumbeats of the rhythms they danced to forever etched in my memory. If you listen closely, you can hear your ancestors. Feel their presence! Keeping you safe, challenging you, and sending you the support you need during tough times.

And now let’s take the memories and marry them to imagination.

Albert Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

We have been given a clean sheet of paper and asked to write the script of the world, 20 years from now. What do we see? I have tapped into the memory of my ancestors, gathering strength, resiliency, and imagination from them. What is next? What is the story?

My story is that there is no such thing as “people living in poverty in this country, in this world. A couple of nights ago at Sixth & I Historic synagogue, they hosted a conversation with Rev. Dr. William Barber II and his co-author [Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove], who have written a book called White Poverty: How Exposing Myths About Race and Class Can Reconstruct American Democracy; Poverty knows no color.

It means that everyone can bring who they fully are to any table and be embraced. It means that our young people are learning about history and the real world around them, which includes learning what really happened to enslaved Africans, about the Holocaust, and the beautiful tapestry of gender identity. It means that we have managed to slow down the destruction of our planet, and it means, when I say my body, I can also say my choice.

It means that next year, with HR40 and SR40 (the legislative bills to study reparations), this country can finally begin a truth and reconciliation process to repair the harms and the impacts of enslavement in this country. For me, Juneteenth is incomplete without transforming our celebration of the acknowledgment of slavery into action to address the trauma caused by it.

My vision for the future is one of wholeness and spirituality. To make memory and imagination real, I truly believe we must make our way back to seeing each human through B’Tzelem Elohim (in the image of the Divine). As a future ancestor, I feel especially accountable to the ecosystem of the world by doing my part to give positive energy to the collective.

The movement of memory, imagination, and belonging will help us reunite our world. With Mussar (a mystical part of Judaism that means “the ethics of our fathers.”) as my foundation, I want to share nine middot with you tonight that I hope will give you as much guidance as it has given me. The guiding principles and tools needed to dismantle the systems of oppression that are holding us back.

  1. Holy Boldness will give us the courage to be bold and brazen like a lion when it comes to the sacred and the divine.
  2. Dignity for us and others is imperative.
  3. Love is the human project.
  4. Compassion allows me to feel and not just wonder.
  5. Truth is the beginning and the end of the conversation.
  6. Justice is overdue.
  7. Joy can only be created within.
  8. Shared Humanity reminds us that we are all beautiful and flawed.
  9. Resiliency keeps us connected to the journey.

Gratitude is just being happy to be here to make a difference.

To close, I want to share a letter with you that I wrote a few years ago called Dear Freedom. When I wrote this I just felt really stuck; did not have any questions, did not have any answers, but I had a lot of thoughts. As we celebrate Juneteenth this year, I urge us to think about what our lives would be if we did not have the very freedoms we have come to enjoy and just how close we are right now to losing those freedoms, if we don’t act, stand up and do something. Taken from a quote by Audre Lorde, “I know we are afraid, but silence will not save us.”

Dear Freedom,

Why is the word free a part of your name? Because obtaining freedom surely has not been free. Where have you been all this time? I and so many others have been looking and waiting for you for a long time. We have prepared a place for you to stay. You ask how long have we been looking for you? Only about four hundred or so years. No, no I am not angry with you, after living and experiencing the world around us, I so very much now understand whey you have not yet arrived in your full beauty.

But I will be honest with you. I am growing weary; exhausted. BUT, if you think there is a real chance you will show up this time; just maybe, I can muster up the strength to hang in there and even help you get here. Hey, I am not giving you a hard time, I know you’ve been trying to get here, but a few things have gotten in your way over the course of the last 400 years. But, despite these obstacles, I watch you fill the car with gas, get the oil checked, check the tire pressure; get a good night’s rest and begin your journey over and over again with numerous incidents of being sidetracked and sometimes being stopped dead in your tracks.

And yet, you keep moving. How do you do it? I’m surprised you still have any desire any fight left in you to even try, but yet you do. You must really want to be here because nothing to date has turned you away. Your ability to persevere and pivot and be powerful is impressive. Your resiliency is awe-inspiring.

Thank you for never giving up and for pushing ahead. Thank you for believing in the human project; that we have, all of us within us to help you get here, freedom. I promise I will do all that I can to help you get here and be accessible to everyone, will you?

Watch the Juneteenth Shabbat@WHC Service