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I am very fond of Juneteenth, the holiday when we celebrate the Union’s announcement to the very last Confederate slaves they were “then, thenceforward, and forever free.” (The 13th Amendment would bring a final end to slavery in the border states six months later.) Now that it is a federal holiday, I am trying to commemorate it.
A dozen years ago, I wrote a poem to mark the day. I still think that it is probably the best poem I have written. However, I am not any good at poetry, so my best poem is still not necessarily a good poem. (Rest assured, poetry will not become a regular feature at De Civitate.) Nevertheless, I want to commemorate the holiday—especially this year, especially this month. (Either you know why, or you don’t.) So here goes:
The morning after the celebrations,
We step outside to begin the long work
And the longer.
The long, of course, is the job of cleaning up the blood.
Long, yes, but not hard. It’s just a question of how many
silk pocket handkerchiefs. (Quite a few, soon red.)
Longer is the job we set ourselves.
The job of forgetting
That this blood did not belong to us
That they who knew said nothing
That we who knew did nothing;
We mistook our sermons for courage.
We wail and we whine and we revile, but
Self-forgiveness comes as easily as ever.
Except for me.
I want another chance.
I want another chance
to be John Brown.
Little do I know, I am not alone.
But yesterday was yesterday.
I am glad it is not yesterday.
There buds a cherry blossom,
Redder than all handkerchiefs.
First of the year.