Juneteenth and Helen Keller: fabricating a controversy

Just over a week ago, the team behind the blog FWD/Forward decided to hold a “blogswarm” dedicated to busting myths about Helen Keller and demonstrating that there was more to her than the “water over the hand” clichés commonly taught in schools (you can find some contributions in the comments to that post). When the event finally kicked off, Renee, the author of Womanist Musings (and of the ridiculous article about an innocent life-sentence prisoner I commented on here) blasted them for ignoring the Black American celebration of Juneteenth (19th June), the anniversary of the taking of Galveston, Texas, by Union troops during the US civil war, which resulted in some of the last slaves being freed when the army broke the news that the law had changed two and a half years ago. (I asked sis. Margari Aziza what she thought of all this; you can find her answer in the comments.) Ouyang Dan of FWD/Forward has since posted this response.

I find it suspicious, to say the least, that Renee waited more than a week to have a go at the FWD/Forward people. Their blog is in her blogroll and I can’t imagine that she didn’t know or didn’t hear about what they were doing. On top of this, it’s the first time Renee has cared enough about Juneteenth to blog about it — her archives for 2009 and 2008 have nothing about Juneteenth at least around the occasion. Given that she never noticed it before, why should a group of feminists with disabilities, many of them not in the USA (and Renee is in Canada), steer clear of using this date to mark something which is significant to them? They were not denying that Juneteenth has any significance, or calling people away from marking it to do what they were doing; they were just doing something different, and given that many admitted that they had never heard of Juneteenth, it is at worst an innocent mistake.

Not all Black Americans celebrate Juneteenth (although it’s a public holiday in some places) and those outside the USA, not to mention people other than Blacks outside the USA, have little reason to mark it as it’s not part of their history. Why should someone in the Netherlands know or care about it? Renee was joined by someone called Courtney who insisted that intention was irrelevant:

If you step on someone’s foot, and they say, “ouch” do you respond with “I’m sorry” or “Well, I didn’t mean to do that, so you shouldn’t be hurt.” That anxious, squirming feeling you’ve got in your gut that is making you want to deny that what happened is a manifestation of racism is your privilege showing itself.

I know that feeling well. Wanting to not be racist and refraining from behaving like Don Imus is not enough. It’s the tip of the iceberg. Our culture is so steeped in racism that finding all of the actions and figures of speech and assumptions that are racist or originated with racism is a lifelong project for a white person. When you feel your brain saying, “but, but, but” that means it’s time to shut up and do more work rooting that shit out. It’s not the time to defend the action or try to moderate the tone of the person calling out the action (i.e. silence them.) If you fuck up, own it. If someone else fucks up, call them on it or at the very least don’t jump to their defense when someone else does.

This may have some validity when the issue is language used that is understood as racist or which reveals prejudice the speaker may not have realised he or she had. Using a date, which isn’t that well known, to celebrate something other than something that means something to a different ethnicity is not racist.

Renee went round leaving foully-worded comments on various people’s blogs after their authors had contributed to the “blogswarm”. Here’s an example:

Today is Juneteenth and it is the celebration of Blacks for the emancipation of slavery. Of course you saw no need to mention it in your post because it’s not like disabled Black people would give a shit right? Racism much? What’s the matter was it too hard for you to add that in your post? You couldn’t say hey Blacks have to two reasons to celebrate today because what? I’ll tell you what we don’t fucking matter. Shame on you!

Demonstrating her concern for other women with debilitating illnesses, she posted this at FWD/Forward:

What’s the matter do you not have the spoons to deal with your fucking racism. I am NOT going to stop. I am going to keep e-mail the editors here, tweeting, and commenting on every single one of these posts until someone has the fucking guts to acknowledge how racist this it. BTW continuing to silence me is also RACIST but then that is what you seem to want to promote.

(“Spoons” refers to energy or physical resources, and is commonly used by people with conditions like ME and lupus as an analogy for having to ration what they can do in a day. This essay, by Christine Miserandino who has lupus, is where the expression originates.)

Renee kept on leaving comments on that entry until Anna, who was the author and moderator for that post, decided to block further comments because “comments critiquing other bloggers have begun to appear in our modqueue” (among them one from me, a briefer version of this post). Of the others who got Renee’s nastygrams, most gave some sort of apology, but Renee then dedicated a second post to denouncing Anna and s.e. smith personally as racists and also the “people of colour who share space with those two racist White feminists” (this was after one of the bloggers who apologised made the mistake of suggesting that those who contribute to FWD/Forward are white, when two of them aren’t).

Her posts and comments reveal that she’s a bully, and all the apologising that went on looks a lot like people intimidated by Renee’s shrill rhetoric. There is no genuine offence given or taken here: it’s one woman trying to fabricate a controversy for her own reasons. She may have just picked a fight for her own amusement, but it could also be down to her long-standing antagonism with “white feminists” that is demonstrated by these two recent examples ([1], [2]). I have had my disagreements with the FWD/Forward people before, but in this case it seems that they’ve been the victims of a premeditated set-up by Renee who was determined to make a race issue out of nothing. The only shame is on her.

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  • Well, I don’t read FWD and as it happens I missed the Helen Keller blogswarm until the day of. There was no set up so thus ends your ridiculous conspiracy theory. When someone feels as though they have been the victim of racism, they are under no obligation to be nice to them. The days of Uncle Tom are long over, so you can weep your racist tears.

    Yes, I am from Canada but I reside in a border town. Each year there is a picnic for the descendants of the people who traveled to Canada on the underground railroad, guess what day that just so happens to fall on. I find it hard to believe that Anna who resides in the city with one of the largest populations of descendants of former slaves has no such recognition. She knew yesterday was Juneteenth and willfully went ahead with the erasure. This is not just an American holiday

    I contacted the above parties by e-mail before I wrote my blog post because I have interacted with all of these women on different levels. I have commented on their blogs and linked to them, thus promoting their work. I became justifiably irate that after several attempts to reach out, I got the silent treatment. No matter how many comments I post on FWD no one bothered to answer me, as though we have never had any previous contact. Note: I have even guest posted on that blog.

    I took the time to acknowledge those that had erased Juneteenth and in the case of Feministe and Hoyden about town I personally thanked both women that apologized.

    The fact that you can refer to me as a bully is not a reflection of me but you. When someone says that they are hurt and they feel erased, you apologize. Two sentences acknowledging that yesterday was juneteenth is all that it would have taken but somehow that was to hard for these women. You cannot erase a holiday created to celebrate the end of slavery with a day to celebrate a White woman, disabled or not.

    Finally, since you don’t share the intersection of being Black and disabled, how the fuck (hehe I cussed again)would know a damn thing about this. This is my intersection and my body. I don’t care if you are disabled, you don’t have the experience to weigh in here, but then if you did already have some bias regarding me you might already know that. So in short, I think that a simple fuck off is about all that you are due.

  • the anniversary of the taking of Galveston, Texas, by Union troops during the US civil war, which resulted in some of the last slaves being freed when the army broke the news that the law had changed two and a half years ago.

    If you’re going to quote my people’s history in the context of a blog post attacking another African descended person, get it right

    Juneteenth commemorates the anniversary of the day Union Major General Gordon Granger read his General Order No. 3 from the balcony of Ashton Villa in Galveston, TX. that freed Texas slaves.

    “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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

    The freedmen are advised to remain quietly 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.”</b.

    This took place TWO months after the US Civil War ended with the April 9 surrender of Confederate forces by General Robert E lee at at Appomattox Court House.

    From 1866 onward that day was celebrated by African American Texans, who took the tradition of Juneteenth wherever they migrated. In 1980 it was made an official state holiday in Texas, the District of Columbia and 35 other states.

    The holiday is increasingly taking a national and international scope.

  • Monica Roberts: I was measuring the date from when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect at the beginning of 1863, which is when the law theoretically did change although it wasn’t effective until 1865.

  • Ginny

    Greetings and assalamu alaikum, while I don’t want to say that people don’t have the right to their own feelings and opinions, at the same time, leaving rude comments not only on the main blog conducting the “blogswarm” but on blogs who linked to it and/or put posts up has just gone completely beyond bounds. Especially since Anna of FWD has attempted to rectify the situation. I understand what Renee was saying, I can understand how she might have felt offended and silenced and left out, however, she was rather rude and it seems trying to silence another marginalized group of people in her own right.

    And if you look at the Holidays/observances heading on the June 19 entry on Wikipedia, Juneteenth is not the only holiday/observance on this day. So perhaps another day could have been chosen, and maybe should have been, however, wouldn’t one also run the risk of offending and silencing another group of people by choosing a day that their particular celebration is held on? I mean, how far do we take this? And why can’t there be enough room for the Helen Keller blogswarm and the Juneteenth celebrations too?

    I can see both sides of this, however, Rennee’s rudenes not only to the FWD blog but other blogs too is really off putting.

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