We human beings are a peculiar species. Through words, sounds, and images, we can transcend many lifetimes to transpose our emotions onto the consciousness of others who come after us. On November 13, 2015, as I stood before the Door of No Return, a historic site on Gorée Island, situated about two miles off the coast of Dakar Senegal, my eyes welled up; my soul was sucked dry of words.
That took me by surprise. I was having a pretty good week, enjoying the company of my peers and taking part in stimulating conversations going on at the USC Marshall Humanitarian Healthcare Conference held in Dakar, Senegal. Then here I was, an emotional mess, standing at this place once the final point of exit for slaves from their home in Africa – a place they likely never saw again.
There were many thoughts emotions that welled up with those tears. It was the benumbed stares and silence of millions of enslaved men, women, and children who had been held chained and bound to dark dungeons that lined the House of Slaves’ corridors. It was their deafening cries as they were dragged out, weighed on a scale, teeth counted like cattle, and exiled permanently from their homeland to toil, suffer and die in foreign lands. It was the incalculable, inconceivable scale and magnitude of suffering and devastation that slavery wreaked upon the people of Africa. Under the garb of expanding trade and commerce, world leaders perpetuated a crime against humanity that damaged the fabric of entire societies and created rifts that continue to divide us today.
January 1, 1863, the day President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, every African-American house was a House of Slaves, it’s every door of no return. Unfortunately, discrimination based on race and color continued even after the Proclamation. Even with the addition of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and the Fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and after the Civil Rights Movement led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., justly insisted that the Constitutional guarantee of ‘inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ did not realize in letter and spirit the discrimination based on color and belief that continues to exist in our society.
Even though slavery and racism are an inseparable part of American history, culture, and collective memory, we recoil in horror and look away in denial. Racial injustice and inequality are not dead or hidden, but have been ignored and now brought to the fore with the wrongful death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other African Americans.
We forget that, much like an individual, a society must be willing to accept its dark past as much as it boosts its glories. For, without acceptance, there could be no inquiry, no reconcilement, no accountability with one’s past, and no real emancipation.
I had never forgotten the moment when I stood there at the Door of No Return, but today I recount it to you for today is Juneteenth, also called Emancipation Day. June 19, 1865 when the Union soldiers arrived with Major General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas with news that the Civil War had ended and the enslaved were free. This year’s Juneteenth is even more significant as it comes at a time when we have been compelled by unprecedented circumstances to look at everything we have taken for granted: our diversity, our shared values, our freedoms, our past, and our future.
I wish that Juneteenth need also be celebrated as a day of reckoning. Not only a day to celebrate the emancipation of slavery in these United States, but a day to recognize when and how we will be able to completely eradicate inequity and injustice from our society. A day to remember how far we have progressed from the times of the division and chaos of the Civil War. Yet, we are far from this reality; at a fundamental level we have stopped growing as individuals and stopped embracing each other’s differences. Until we overcome these differences, accountability is found and change incurs this is will be but a dream.
I wish that the recent and ongoing unfortunate events surrounding racial inequity and injustice become a catalyst for positive change in our society. In the same way that we visit the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal to remind ourselves of the human values of progress, aspiration, and love; we stand in protest and visit Plymouth Rock, Independence Hall, and Ellis Island to remind ourselves of the principles of justice, equality, and fraternity that we as Americans have long cherished, protected, and stood for.
I wish that, in the same way, that we have led the world in defining the ideas of enterprise, innovation, and trade, we make it a priority to show to ourselves and the world that we can rise above all the noise and stop all discrimination based on color, whether it is on the streets, on campuses, or our organizational rank and file. A big silver lining for me in this prevailing atmosphere of despair has been the role of the people of our new generation who have brought in a more informed and just worldview to the dialogue. It is our young generation that is saying enough is enough, and I think we must listen in and pay heed. Let us all challenge ourselves, from the corporate boardroom to the classroom. How can we take the conversation of social responsibility, diversity, equity, value, and vision statement beyond just the pretty words? Speak out against discrimination, vote and demand accountability from those tasked to serve and represent. Let the mantra of all form of equality finally penetrate into our hearts and souls and make it part of our DNA that we are all equal!
Celebrate Juneteenth, everyone!