Guest columnist Michael Pill: What one white man learned from Juneteenth in Amherst


Published: 06-22-2023 1:50 PM

The Ancestral Bridges Foundation’s Juneteenth event in Amherst included Civil War reenactors in the uniform of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. Of more than 1,000 men, both free born and former slaves, who came from all over the country to muster into that regiment on Boston Common in 1863, fewer than 600 survived the war.

They, like African Americans who fought in all of this nation’s wars, put their lives on the line for a promise of freedom and equality that has yet to be fulfilled. The pre-Civil War abolitionist song “The Liberty Ball” proclaimed “We’ll finish the temple of freedom and make it capacious within, so that all who seek shelter may find it whatever the hue of their skin.”

It has fallen to us in the 21st century to make that promise a reality.

On the one hand, the American Republic was founded with lofty words in the Declaration of Independence that we are all “created equal … endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote those words, was a slaveowner who took a female slave (Sally Hemmings) as his concubine. George Washington also was a slaveowner; 1960s’ Black Panther activist Bobby Seale said of Washington that “he was not the father of my country.”

The ancestors of us white folks fled from European tyrants. They were no different from today’s refugees who know only that the unknown future ahead could not be worse than the living nightmare left behind. Our “blood, sweat, toil and tears” helped make the American Republic a bastion of freedom and opportunity, at least for us.

We must face the fact that it also was built upon the twin foundations of Native American genocide and African slavery. Michele Obama, herself the descendant of slaves, spoke publicly about the fact that for eight years she woke up mornings in a hallowed national monument (the White House) built by slave labor.

Anthropologists agree the ancestors of modern humans migrated out of Africa, so we are all children of the same mother. Us white folks who got bleached out in our wandering are just pale-faced descendants of Black Africans.

We all share a legacy of ancient tribalism dating back to the ice ages, conditioning us to hate or fear whoever is different. In some languages, the name for one’s own tribe means “human being,” with the implication that whoever is not of our tribe must be subhuman.

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Racism, sexism, homophobia, religious prejudice, judging men by their occupation and women by their physical appearance — all the ways we divide ourselves from one another — are like layers of an onion. Peeling away layers of the bigotry onion is a task that confronts each of us daily. We must keep trying (in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 civil rights March on Washington) to evaluate people solely “by the content of their character.”

The Chinese sage Lao Tzu wrote that a “journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” As the Rev. Jesse Jackson said of former Gov. Michael Dukakis: “His foreparents came to America on immigrant ships; my foreparents came to America on slave ships. But whatever the original ships, we’re in the same boat tonight.”

Michael Pill is an attorney who lives in Shutesbury.