Juneteenth 2020 – Dr. Linda Rae Murray - Health & Medicine Policy Research Group

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Juneteenth 2020 – Dr. Linda Rae Murray

June 16, 2020 Written By: Linda Rae Murray, MD, MPH

“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all of the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so it won’t destroy you. Part of the rage is this: it isn’t only what is happening to you, but it’s what’s happening all around you all of the time, in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, the indifference and ignorance of most white people in this country.”

– James Baldwin, during an interview with Nat Hentoff, WBAI-FM New York City, January 10, 1961

As a little girl growing up in the projects of Cleveland, Ohio, we did not celebrate Juneteenth. In those days, Juneteenth was a celebration in Texas – commemorating the day enslaved people in Galveston were informed by the Union army that chattel slavery had ended. Later, as I learned more of our history, I read with amazement the actual words of the General Order No. 3:

“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 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.”

To my young ears those words fell far short of the demand of my generation: FREEDOM – NOW!

Several years ago, our staff insisted that this day be recognized as a paid holiday for Health & Medicine Policy Research Group. Today, I sit in my office, sheltering in place for the third month as we clumsily attempt to deal with the global COVID-19 pandemic. Zoom meetings are metastasizing all over my calendar, and millions of people are in the streets around the world protesting white supremacy.

Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, I received messages from my son and daughter-in-law that their youngest was insisting on joining the protests. Could I help distract her, perhaps give her some less dangerous ways to participate? My baby girl, TY, who just graduated from high school and is on her way to Howard in the fall, has little or no patience for old folks like her parents. She understands racism, she is tired of it, and she is going to do something about it – she is eighteen. I listened to the concern and fear in my son’s voice — it’s not so much the demonstrations — what about COVID? Plus, when you have crowds like that, there is no telling what the police will do.

TY’s maternal grandmother and I are both mothers of Black men. We still feel the terror that grips your heart every time your baby boy steps out of the house, and the relief that comes when he returns home physically intact. I understand their parental concern.

Sorry, I cannot help you. I will send her some info on how to dress for demonstrations, I offered. Carolyn, my co-grandmother and a participant in the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963, agreed in the importance of being present and in the reason for concern. We did not have to worry about COVID, we only had the water hoses, dogs, and police.

I was sent a picture of one of the signs TY made – Say HER name with a long list of Black women and girls killed by the police. I thought of all the Black people murdered by the police in the state in the name of white supremacy over the past 400 years. Only Native Americans are brutally murdered at higher rates. Most of the names we will never know. Names that span the globe — murder that occurs in U.S. territories and colonies.

Sorry, don’t have time, TY answered some request I sent her. I am on my way to protest again.

So am I baby, I replied. I drove to join my medical center colleagues in a well-organized, physically distanced silent protest (carefully neglecting to tell my over-protective son until I came home). There, from all academic medical centers in the area were health care workers protesting in Louis Pasteur Park. I experienced flashbacks of the many demonstrations in that very park — gatherings in anger railing at the needless pain, suffering, and deaths caused by racism from heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and now COVID-19. Deaths quietly occurring in large numbers, invisible to most — but still what I call murder.

Fewer Black men entered medical school (515) in 2014, the year I retired from Cook County Health, than in 1978 (542), when I completed my internship year at Cook County Hospital. I considered all the pipeline programs defunded, the crumbling of our public education system. Cheap labor remains the standard operating procedure. Underpaid Black and Brown essential workers risk their lives daily fighting this pandemic. Our prisons and jails are full of Black and Brown bodies and our country locks up children in ICE cages like dogs.

My mind flashes back to the first time I saw the National Guard in the streets of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1966. A young soldier, startled by my movement, swung his rifle around and trained it on me. Today, more than a half a century later, young people are in the streets AGAIN demanding that they stop killing us. In 1968, after the assassination of Dr. King, the rebellions spread across the nation. Police and Guardsmen on college campuses — Orangeburg, Kent State, Jackson State — killing protesters. Now, more than a half a century later, the National Guard is mobilized, buildings are on fire, and statues representing white supremacy are being toppled around the world.

It does not matter what area one considers, white supremacy is alive and well. The median wealth of Black and Latinx families who have a bachelor’s degree or higher remains well below that of white families with no college degree.

My baby girl does not quote the statistics. She does not have to. She understands racism, she is tired of it, and she is going to do something about it – she is eighteen. A friend asked me recently if I was proud of her for protesting. I was surprised and confused. I am proud of all three of my granddaughters, mostly for things only grandmothers are proud of. No, pride has not been the emotion weighing on my heart.

My grandbabies, the three related to me by DNA, and the millions in the street related to me by history, oppression, and the blood that waters the soil of this stolen land, are only doing what they must, what my great-grandmother explained to me as a child. “White folks are going to always knock you down. The only thing you have to decide is how often you stand up.”

As they have for centuries, the young are once again getting off the ground and standing. Fury, not pride, is in my heart.

This week is Juneteenth 2020. I am a seventy-one year old Black woman. I am in a rage all of the time, and I am about to lose my mind.