The year is 1923. It is the middle of June. You are a kid in a seersucker suit, on your way to a picnic. The weather is hot. Sweltering, actually. Texas can be like a steam bath sometimes.
Today is a holiday. At least that’s what everyone is saying. But it’s a day you’ve never heard of.
“What’s Juneteeth, Daddy?” you ask.
“Ssshhh,” says your father, the quiet Scottish minister, who is always telling you to shush. If you’ve been shushed once, you’ve been shushed a million times. He usually follows this up with, “Ssshhh, just listen, David.”
Just listen? You’ve been just-listening for your whole life, and it never seems to get people to quit shushing you.
This morning, before your family left the house, your mother dressed you up and fixed your blonde hair to your head with industrial pump lubricant. These trousers cost your parents money they didn’t have. Your father has lost three church jobs in one year because he keeps getting fired.
When you arrive at the park, it’s crowded with an all-black gathering of folks who eat lunch on blankets. And you discover that your family is the only white family at the celebration.
The place is alive with energy. There is laughter, games, drink, and music everywhere. Real music. The kind of modern music they’re playing in cities. They call it jazz. You’ve heard jazz a few times on your friend’s mom’s Victrola. You can’t get enough of the stuff.
“Hi, Reverend Amons,” a young black woman says to your father. “Happy Juneteenth.”
Your father takes her hand. “Delia, happy Juneteenth, sweetheart.”
“Happy Juneteenth,” your mother says, embracing the girl.
“What the heck is Juneteenth?” you announce.
“Ssshh,” your father says, straightening your jacket collar. “Just listen, David, and you might learn something.”
There he goes again.
Here come your friends running toward you. John, Jeremiah, and Terrence. They ask if you want to watch the baseball game.
Baseball? They have baseball here?
The three of you tear out across the open green. And you can hardly believe it, on the east side of the park are men playing actual baseball. Not boys. Men. The Kansas City Monarchs. A famous black ball club that travels the nation. They’re playing an exhibition game in honor of the day.
When you get to the field you ask Terrence, “Do you know what Juneteenth is?”
But Terrence is too busy buying hot peanuts from the peanut stand, counting his change. “Ssshhh,” he says.
Not him too.
The park lawn keeps filling with families who wear their Sunday best. Some young. Some old. Everyone is eating. Including you. You’ve eaten so much that you’re stomach is about to rupture.
After the game, you see your father approaching in the distance. He’s waving at people, shaking hands, giving hugs, laughing. And you’ve never noticed this before, but you notice it now: Your father sticks out like a sore thumb here. He is a plain, white clergyman in a tired linen suit.
Still, these people all know him by his first name because your father is a friend here.
For years he’s been spending night hours teaching reading-and-writing classes in the backs of his churches. This has gotten him fired from many congregations, but he does it anyway because he is a stubborn Scot. And because he is a human being.
His pupils are former slaves, juke musicians, and field workers. They all attend his classes carrying slate tablets, wearing big smiles. Your father teaches them everything from the ABCs to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he even helps them find steady work.
The picnic is coming to an end. The sun is setting in the west. The sky is painted orange. There is a small platform on the other side of the park. People are gathering for some kind of ceremony.
There are musicians warming up the crowd. An upright bass, a fiddle, a clarinet. You close your eyes and listen to the wild melodies coming from their enchanted instruments. God, it sounds better than a record.
An old man takes the stage. He is a preacher like your father. His skin is cocoa, his hair is blazing cotton. He offers a quick prayer, and your father tells you to remove your hat.
The old man’s words have a melody. He speaks in a voice that sounds like a trombone solo. After everyone amens, the old preacher tells a story about his childhood.
It’s a story of olden days, when 2000 Union soldiers galloped into his hometown of Galveston Bay, Texas, on June 19, 1865. He was still a slave then, living in a pine shack. The soldiers carried good news. In their pockets were miniature paper copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, which they read aloud to Texas slaves.
Then, the preacher unfolds a tattered slip of antique paper. He places spectacles onto his nose and begins to recite in a strong voice the words he heard as a young man:
“And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I, President Abraham Lincoln, do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated states, are, and henceforward shall be free.”
Everyone in the audience begins to applaud and cheer. Music starts to play. People are hugging each other. Some of the elderly are sobbing.
Your father is also crying. He squeezes you and your friend Terrence in his arms until your livers squeaks. The cheers get louder. And louder. Until your ears are about to split open.
“What’s happening?” you ask your father.
“Ssshhh,” he says. “Just listen.”