For My Great Grandmother Butler on Juneteenth

Today’s Juneteenth, the day in 1865 that slaves in Texas found out about the Emancipation Proclamation — and their freedom — a whole two years after the proclamation had been signed. This is one of the most significant days in American history. And on such days as this, I find myself thinking about my own connections to slavery.

My great-grandmother, Mrs. Butler, was born in 1879. Both of her parents, my great-great grandparents, were slaves. When I look at this picture of me with her, I imagine I can feel her reaching out and touching my five-month-old hands. I often think about how her hands were held by slaves who had toiled in plantation fields without compensation, and while being treated as only three-fifths human.

I didn’t see Grandmother Butler very frequently. She lived in a nursing home and was in a wheelchair because her legs had been amputated due to diabetes. I also remember that she had such kind eyes and her smile appeared so easily. I was seven when she passed at the age of 100, and I still remember how hard I cried at her funeral.

Sometimes I try to imagine what her life was like when she was the age I am right now, and the things I imagine are never joyous things. It’s not that I think her life had no happiness. I just imagine the hardship and blatant racism she and her family must’ve faced on a daily basis.

Yet Grandmother Butler was not a bitter woman, even though she was born in the South two years after the end of Reconstruction, and 16 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. I know that her faith was her rock, the thing that enabled her to retain her humanity despite the racist oppression which surrounded her.

So with my Great Grandmother Butler, the daughter of slaves, on my mind, this evening I’ll be commemorating Juneteenth. The memory of our ancestors, those individuals whose blood runs deep into soil we now take for granted, and whose dreams and hopes could never be realized, should not be forgotten.

A version of this post originally appeared on Los Angelista

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