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(published June 22, 2006)
Jumpin' and Shoutin' and Carryin' On
by Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz
The morning began warm and bright. The sky was clear, with the white sun poised just above the horizon in the blue expanse, and the shafts of light made everything appear more radiant. Though the moon was still visible, it was a milky silhouette, fading. An intermittent breeze came through unsettling loose objects in the yard and troubling the Inca doves masquerading as leaves; they coo-hoo, coo-hooed each time the breeze arose.
At first the draft merely seemed to keep the morning in motion, but then it became steadier and cold, carrying with it the smell of burning in the distance. Like the billows of smoke ballooning upward, dark clouds emerged, the sun cowering behind them, and the sky turned ugly — gray and uninteresting.
Standing in his backyard, Luther turned his attention to the sky's sudden haziness. He was trying to listen, though an unexpected gust shook through the trees and the doves ascended in great haste, distracting and momentarily confusing him. He muttered a curse word, and again poised his ear toward the distance. Following some concentration, he could distinguish the sound of wood being pieced together, a refrain, and then the thunk, thunk thunk of a hammer's blow. The murmur of human voices rose above the wind. Shaking his head, Luther turned his attention back to the tub of dungarees he was angrily scrubbing. His wet hands ached as the cold breeze passed over them, making it difficult for him to wring water from the heavy denim.
He sighed, in anger and frustration; he would have to leave soon.
The change in weather would not keep them from gathering and, as a member of the Negro community, Luther knew he was expected to be there as well.
As he struggled with the tub of wet clothes, muttering to himself, Luther thought of the ancient Israelites, of the commandment of Yahweh that they celebrate their being passed over by the Angel of Death. They were to gather year after year in celebration of their history — their salvation — but Luther couldn't help but wonder if ever some, or maybe just one, ever thought or said, "We know why we're still here. I've got some other things I need to do—can't we just let this go this time?"
He laughed at the absurdity of this his thoughts, but still, along the same line, he thought: Can't I just not do somethin' I don't want to do? Isn't that what today is all about—people being free? Negroes are free; we all know that, even if it's just up there on that paper in Washington, D.C. Can't I just join y'all same time next year?
But he knew he could not, so he hastened his washing, draping the dripping clothes across the line running between two trees. He'd been up since early morning, though he'd gotten a late start, and he tried not to think of the other chores that would have to go undone, for today at least.
Luther kicked at the tub until it toppled over and the water spilled out into the yard, running backward and rushing over his boots. It would do him no good to curse again, but Luther did anyway as he headed out of the backyard and down the road.
Guessing at the time, Luther supposed the hammering was the tent going up, the burning was surely the pit being readied for the chicken and ribs to be cooked, and although his mind allowed him a taste of Miss Rose's sweet potato pie, the Seven-Up cakes made from scratch by the Lacey sisters, the peach and apple cobblers, still it was not enough to sway his mood.
The celebration was inconvenient; that was most of it, Luther thought. Why did it seem that everything that needed to get done waited till Juneteenth to start hollerin' for attention?
Still he wondered why the black folks in town continued this celebration. There was nothing different year after year; same old jumpin' and shoutin' and carryin' on, he thought. People died or moved away, but that seemed to be the only aspect that changed.
Still they gathered.
Luther plodded along the dirt road toward the clearing in the woods where the Negroes in town met for such occasions. In the distance, laughter could be heard. Joyous singing. Luther crossed his arms about him and lowered his head, thinking how he might tolerate the work to be done for the warmth of the fire. Looking up to gauge his distance, he was surprised to see two figures emerging toward him, away from the site of celebration.
Nearing them, he was further surprised to find it was Doc and one of his granddaughters.
Doc had been a minister most of his life, but he'd also studied medicine, becoming the first Negro doctor in town, his intention being (Doc would tell you if you asked and especially when you didn't) to heal body and soul. Luther remembered Doc as a solid and booming man, but a stroke had struck him down, confining him to a wheelchair and stealing away his speech.
Still Doc had his way. If there was something in the new preacher's sermon that Doc didn't agree with, for example, the old man would take his cane, the one he'd used before the stroke, and bang the tip of it against the wooden floor again and again to show his dissatisfaction.
His granddaughter, Nancy, like most Negro women Luther knew, worked as a maid in some white family's home, although he'd heard that she was studying to be a nurse.
Meeting up, Luther informed them that they were headed in the wrong direction.
"We're gatherin' that way," he said with a slight laugh, worried that his irritable disposition had somehow changed the day's events, affecting others.
Nancy smiled. "Oh, we just came from there, but we can't stay."
The young woman shook her head. Placing her hands on either of her grandfather's shoulders, she said, "He isn't feeling well today. He just wanted to make an appearance, make sure it was going to happen."
It happened every year, Luther assured her. Negroes celebratin' just like they had when old General Granger arrived in Galveston with General Order Number 3.
Luther searched his mind and spoke with quiet deliberation:
"The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and freed laborer.
"The freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts, and that they will not be supported in idleness, either there or elsewhere."
Luther was surprised that the words he'd memorized as a child had come back so clear to him, so easy. The intense interest on Doc's face and Nancy's made him uncomfortable, so he made light of his knowledge, saying, "Like we'd been idle all along."
Nancy grinned and then said in a solemn tone, "Granddaddy used to know that by heart too."
Doc jabbed the dirt with his cane.
"He knows it," she said, correcting herself. She leaned her head close and pressed her cheek to her grandfather's. "You still know it; you just can't get it out no more."
They remained like that for a few moments and then Nancy straightened herself and wrapped her hands around the handles on the chair. "We'd better be going."
"Back home?" Luther asked, feeling it was a shame that Doc wasn't himself anymore. Every Juneteenth, until he had the stroke, Doc had run the whole damn show.
Nancy shook her head. "Nah, we're going down to the Ashton Villa."
Luther's eyes questioned her, although he said nothing.
Explaining, she said, "The proclamation's read there every year. Granddaddy was there in Galveston when the news first came. He'd been a slave all the five years of his life, and although he was a bit angry having to work longer than he should have, nothing made him happier than hearing that he didn't have to work no more — not for free, anyway."
Luther eyes widened. "I didn't know that about Doc." He looked down into the man's face. Doc was smiling, but Luther couldn't be sure the smile was for him.
"We go there every year," Nancy continued. "To hear that it was ended."
"Well, least in word," Luther laughed. "They be lettin' black folks over there?"
"Oh, we don't stay long . . . just long enough for the ceremony and for Granddaddy to remember. Besides, they don't bother us none. I'm sure they're used to us by now." Nancy laughed. "Though I remember one time, when me and Ida and Pearl were young and Granddaddy decided to take us with him. It must have been the first time we'd ever gone, but we sure didn't want to.
"Anyway, once there, this white man told us we needed to get, that we weren't free to be on that side of town . . . We could just feel Granddaddy bristling at that, but he just replied, 'I may not be at liberty to be on this side of town, but Sir, may I remind you that I am free to do as I damn well please.' Oh, that just made that man so mad, his nose was flaring and his face got all red. Granddaddy gathered us up right quick and we made haste to the car, Granddaddy giggling all the way, though he kept an eye in the rearview mirror 'til we got home. The next year, we begged to be taken along."
"Really now," Luther said, his mind now full of things to consider. "Well."
Nancy smiled. "You have a good time, Luther. We'll be seeing you."
Luther watched them depart before he turned and headed down a hill towards the celebration grounds.
The Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect in January 1863, but the news hadn't reached Texas until the middle of June —two and a half years later.
Freedom had arrived not too long ago, Luther thought. Not at all.
He was pondering the details he'd just learned, amazed that he knew someone who'd survived the burden of slavery. Now he understood Doc's valiant and constant cry every Sunday morning that his congregation "forget the unnecessary things in their past."
"It wasn't all bad," Luther could recall Doc saying. "Something back there got us thus far." Doc had attributed their survival to the faith and endurance of their African ancestors despite the circumstances of their lives.
"That evil called slavery had to fall, but we don't," Doc had proclaimed. "We need to grab hold of the worthwhile things they left us and move ahead!"
Luther was coming to an understanding of Doc's determination and its transcending spirit born out of that experience, and suddenly what had begun over two hundred years before didn't seem so remote, something just for some history books. Luther felt his mood shifting, buoyed by the meaning of his newfound knowledge. If there were no need for this celebration, where would he be?
Doc might not be around much longer, Luther was thinking. In his mind, he could see the man before the Ashton Villa, his former slave heart swelling with a memory. But as Luther continued on to the celebration, calling out to the crowd and waving, an image of himself began to emerge in Doc's place.
Maybe the white folks of Galveston would be bothered enough to ask what he was doing there, a lone Negro appearing every June 19 and, already, Luther could hear himself saying, "Remembering."