Dharma Talk by Rachel Koshin-yo
Today is an important day. Today, June 19, in 1865, enslaved African-Americans in Texas were told that slavery had ended. This event happened two years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed and 2 months after Robert E Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. Today honors the day that the last enslaved African Americans were informed of their freedom. On this day, June 19, 2022 we celebrate the second year that Juneteenth is being recognized as a federal holiday. All I want to say about that is, it’s about damn time.
African-American slavery in North America was not the first form of slavery on the planet and sadly it was not the last. But it was a sweeping organization of oppression in America for hundreds of years based solely on the color of people’s skin. It is a part of American history just as much as The Declaration of Independence and The First and Second World Wars. Yet we often learn about it as a footnote, something that happened in our past, not something to worry about now.
In the spring of 2020, when we were all consumed with the worry of the new and confusing COVID pandemic, another horror happened. An African-American man named George Floyd was killed at the hands of law enforcement. An officer knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes, suffocating him. Why? Because Mr. Floyd resisted arrest for using a counterfeit $20 bill. Was this the first time an African-American had been murdered by white police officers? Certainly not. But this time the event caused a worldwide protest of police brutality, police racism, and police accountability. There were protests in many cities, including Salt Lake City. As a result of the local protests, this city was put on lockdown. The day of the lockdown? My 57th birthday. Initially, I was pissed off. It was my birthday. Even with the pandemic going on I was planning a small lunch with my daughter, son, and a friend. Because of the lockdown my son could not leave his house. So there I was, suffering. But something happened as a result of this suffering. I became curious. I wanted to know what was going on in the world that was causing so much unrest. Yes, I agreed with the protestors and yet I did not understand the impact that hundreds of years of slavery had on the African American community of North America today. To learn what was going on for this community I started reading. I started reading books like: “Hood Feminism” by Mikki Kendall, “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson, “How the Word is Passed” by Clint Smith, “Heavy” by Kiese Laymon, and “On Juneteenth” by Annette Gordon-Reed. I wanted to get an understanding of what life was like for a community I wasn’t a part of. I thought, “The slaves were freed but yet 155 years later there is still unrest. What’s going on?” I have so much more to learn. The dharma gates are endless. But today I want to share some of what I have learned so far.
Yes, on June 19th, 1865, the last African-American slaves were declared free. Yes we should celebrate that and people have for the last 155 years. Also, I want to give overwhelming thanks to these enslaved people for building our country. For while people like John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson were busy writing and signing the Declaration of Independence, enslaved African-Americans were building the buildings they lived and worked in, farming the crops they ate, caring for their livestock, cleaning their homes, and performing many other tasks that the founding fathers saw free labor fit for. If you asked these founding fathers about the enslaved
labor they would probably reply with some sort of statement like, “They aren’t free labor, I paid for those slaves!” Indeed they did. Slaves were a commodity. Bought and sold like clothing or wheat. When Thomas Jefferson was short on cash and needed to pay off his debts, he thought nothing of selling off a slave or two. It didn’t matter if this enslaved man or woman had a family they were leaving, or if the slave was a child. To Jefferson, they were just an asset that could easily be turned into a liquid asset. Most of these people were treated with less respect than livestock. Yet they were people, exactly the same as Jefferson and Franklin. They were exactly the same as you and I. I’m not asking you to hate Jefferson and Franklin or to turn them into complete villains. But I would like you to take a moment and understand that the people we have idealized from our past were most certainly fallible.
On June 19th 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and declared all enslaved people free. Texas was the last confederate state to abolish slavery. In fact, Texas had written it’s own Declaration of Independence. This document stated that all enslaved people in Texas and their descendants would forever be slaves. Any freed slaves were not welcome in the state of Texas. So when General Granger arrived in Galveston, what did his message mean? In theory, African Americans were now allowed to come and go as they pleased. But it wasn’t that simple. After toiling, building, and caring for our country these freed slaves had nothing to show for their efforts. They didn’t own homes. They didn’t have any material possessions except for maybe the clothes on their backs. They didn’t own property. Most importantly, they had no money and their jobs were just taken away. How could they survive?
In the meantime, the white people of Texas weren’t ready to accept that their free labor would no longer be free. They were angry. To the whites, nothing had changed about African-Americans except the law. They still saw them as second class citizens, if citizens at all. There were riots against and assaults of the newly freed slaves. In addition to their situation of lack, enslaved people were oppressed for hundreds of years by horrific trauma. Their DNA carried experiences of rape, physical abuse, starvation, emotional abuse, and disease. They were never taught to read, write, or learn arithmetic. Some secretly were, but they numbered few and far between. Many ex slaves remained in a slave-like situation, just to be able to feed themselves and their families.
Still, many freed African-Americans were able to find work and build communities. In New York City, Seneca Village was built. This town was built by freed slaves who were landowners as early as 1825. At it’s height, the town was inhabited by over 200 African Americans. Unfortunately, it was torn down by the city of New York in 1857 when the city declared eminent domain. The city used this property along with many other acres to create Central Park. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Central Park. I was eager to see the space where Seneca Village had existed. Sadly, that was all that was there – a space. A grassy field with a plaque, marked the spaces for churches and schools. Yet there were no buildings to commemorate the memory of this town. A lot of African-American history in the United States is like the town of Seneca Village. It’s difficult if not impossible to find the history of African-American slaves in this country. There are no marked graveyards. Birth records were only kept by slaveholders. These labeled slaves by their statistics, not their names. Life histories could not be recorded
by people who couldn’t write, nor had the time to write. A typical slave only had free time in the dark. Their daylight hours were spent serving their slave owning master. So many past lives remain a forgotten mystery.
As freed African-American slaves started to build their lives and grow their independence they faced numerous obstacles. From 1890 to 1908, former confederate states passed constitutions to disenfranchise African-American people, keeping them from being able to vote and sit on juries. African-Americans could easily be convicted of crimes and heinously treated without a jury of their own peers. When living in a community of resentful white men who were angry about losing their free labor pool the odds were stacked against freed slaves. How could African-Americans run for office or be found not guilty of crimes they were convicted of when these laws were in place? Clearly, just because slaves had been freed, whites did not recognize them as equals. Jim Crow laws enacted “separate but equal” situations. African-Americans were entitled to the same rights as whites (schools, medical facilities, and transportation) but they had to be separate facilities. Most if not all of these facilities and services were inferior if they existed at all. Offices, hotels, and restaurants were segregated. While many of these laws were overturned and headed to the Supreme Court for decisions, these laws weren’t officially repealed until the Civil Rights Act in 1964. By then, I was alive. Americans were living 100 years after the first Juneteenth celebration. Yet, whites were afraid to empower African-Americans for fear that whites would lose their own footing and status in society.
During the 20th century, African-Americans were depicted in the media. At first, they were presented in black face, white performers wearing black makeup. Then they were on products like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s. These products depicted African Americans as fun loving, and jolly people ready to serve their white masters. Books and movies that depicted slaves showed foolish people who didn’t have the intelligence to understand anything. While these people might not be able to read and write they certainly learned to speak English effectively. Nothing stopped them from learning English similar to the immigrants who come to our country today. Plus, slaves lived in this country for generations. Thomas Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemings, gave birth to 6 children fathered by Jefferson. A number of these children had light enough skin to pass as white in society and marry white partners. They certainly could not have “passed” if they couldn’t speak English effectively. Many enslaved people came to America with valuable skills. They knew how to produce indigo, weave, cook, quilt, carpenter, and even cobble shoes. Yet they were depicted in our movies and books as being useless until the white society taught them their skills.
After the Civil war, the war was not taught in Texas school as a war about slavery, it was taught as a war about states rights. When we hear about Texas history today, we hear more about “cowboys and Indians” or the oil industry. Yet there were many slaves in Texas. East Texas was developed by a man named Stephen Austin, known as the “father of Texas.” Austin came to to Texas to create cotton fields for plantation owners. No Anglo-American was going to work the land. Austin lobbied for slavery as way of ensuring success in bringing colonists of the area to be successful. Austin is the namesake of the currently liberal city of Austin,Texas. Are Texans aware of his slave related past? Texas was using African-American slave labor to tame the wild forests and build their economy. Much like other parts of America, slave labor was used to
build the wealth of the white population. Similar to fathers of our country, the father of Texas had fallible side. It’s time to recognize and understand the history that made our country what it is today.
Learning all of these facts about the history of African-Americans I am in awe. In awe that this community has had the resilience and tenacity to hang on through racism and oppression. I feel shame for the anger I felt back in the spring of 2020 when I couldn’t
celebrate my birthday. Yet I don’t want the issue to be about me at all. I want the issue to be about acknowledging and removing my conscious and unconscious biases. This acknowledgement and removal I believe is what will help me on a path to enlightenment. Perhaps I will even become a Bodhisattva. I agree with Gloria Steinem when she said, “When humans are ranked instead of linked, everyone loses.” I can’t take away what African-American slavery was in this country but I can fully acknowledge what it was and what we have chosen to create with it. I can continue to learn every day and have more compassion for the people who continue to fight for their equality and freedom in this country. I can speak up and help others learn. We are all one. When the African-American community hurts, it impacts us all.
The term African-American was coined back in 18th century, but rarely used until in 1969 when the African-American Teachers Association used it to name their organization. In 1988, Jesse Jackson popularized the term to identify people who were labeled as “Blacks.” This term is a reminder that having African ancestry does not separate one from being an American. While we don’t call whites “European Americans” or “Ukrainian-Americans” it is valuable for us to remember that once the slaves hit American soil they and their descendants became Americans and should be treated equally, and not separately. Yet this separateness remains a challenge today.
To be an African-American man in the US today means many things. It means, no wearing black hoodies in certain neighborhoods, no jogging at night, hands in plain sight in public, never driving over the speed limit, and never rolling through a stop sign. For all of these items African-American men have been persecuted and even killed. What kind of freedom is that?
When we forget our past we are doomed to repeat it. We need to learn and acknowledge our past. The dharma gates are endless and we must enter them to learn the truth of our past. When we carry the divisions of slavery and the hate of African Americans into our current environment then 9 people are murdered during a bible study, a black man is suffocated by a white policeman, and people fear routine traffic stops. Freedom doesn’t mean free for some. Freedom doesn’t mean freedom only if you are white. The celebration of Juneteenth reminds us of that fact. So today, if you are celebrating Juneteenth or just reminded of what the day represents, be sure to be kind, fair, and equal. Remember that this day honors the end of a horrific practice and also reminds us to treat everyone equally regardless of the color of their skin or their country of origin. Specifically, this day reminds us that just like every human, those we enslaved in this country deserve our thanks for what they built for us and that they
deserved to be free and their descendants deserve to be free – free from persecution, racism, and unfair practices.
May all beings be peaceful.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be safe.
May all beings be free.
Namu Amida Butsu