James Forbes’ ode to Juneteenth calls on People to just accept the promise of freedom

(RNS) – Rev. James A. Forbes Jr. was already an adult when he began to understand the importance of juneteenth.

It was his wife, Bettye, whom he met in the early 1960s when they were both students at Howard University, who helped him celebrate the memorial service.

She grew up in San Antonio, Texas, where black people across the city celebrated their freedom with pageants, parades, performances, and other public events in city parks on June 19 each year.

Forbes grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina in the 1930s and 1940s when Juneteenth was little known, let alone celebrated.

Pastor emeritus of towering Riverside Church in New York City, Forbes, has returned to Raleigh and now sees it as his job to spread the good news of President Biden’s annual celebration of freedom that will be held on Thursday (17th Federal Day).

That year he wrote an apt poem about the challenges that persist 156 years after Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to carry the message that the Civil War was over and the enslaved free.

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Forbes’ spoken word is not just a hymn of praise for freedom. It is a call to all Americans to face the reality of the nation’s history and the unfinished work of Juneteenth.

“As a preacher, I felt that there was a strange power on that day that wasn’t even on July 4th,” Forbes said. “July 4th freed the people from the British Crown. But the Juneteenth freed people from the division, dehumanization, cruelty and bondage of slavery itself. “

He recently shared his spoken word with another North Carolina religious leader, Rev. William J. Barber II. Barber liked it so much that he had Forbes deliver it on camera. It has now been posted on his Repairers of the Breach YouTube channel.

In it, Forbes is written in the shrine of the Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, a civil rights icon in Raleigh, and says:

“The newly freed slaves were excited about this great day,
They thanked God for the freedom despite the delay.
God said, “Though you’re free from chains of slavery”
You are still prisoners of murderous bigotry ‘”

Forbes began publicly celebrating June 10th in 2015 with an annual concert by the Ebony Ecumenical Ensemble that his wife founded. The first celebrations took place at Riverside Church, but in 2019 the event was moved to Carnegie Hall, which this year will feature a program of music, dance and commentary from personalities such as Harvard Professor Annette Gordon-Reed and the well-known Bryan Stevenson, attorney at law, will continue to pursue civil society online.

However, the past two years have dashed all hope. The freedoms gained on June 19, 1865 were the end of history.

The assassination of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year and the nationwide protests that followed scorched Forbes’ soul.

“I thought George Floyd’s protests were God speaking to the nation,” Forbes said. “When protesters started saying ‘Black Lives Matter, No Justice, No Peace’, I saw God speaking through them what we must do if we want to be a society that is not on the path of destruction, but a people is towards the beloved community. “

Then came the January 6th attack on the Capitol with white people carrying Confederate flags, followed by South Carolina Senate Tim Scott’s statement that “America is not a racist country” in response to the President’s speech Biden before Congress.

One line in the poem challenges Scott directly – “If you care about having the truth on your side, racism in this country cannot be denied.”

Barber said what struck him about Forbes’ poem was that Americans have to do the work to keep the promise of freedom.

“His words remind us that we can remember Juneteenth as a nation, but we cannot retreat from fighting the unexplained injustices and lies of white supremacy that still take too much of the psyche and politics of our nation and world enslave, ”said Barber.

But the inspiration for the poem, according to Forbes, was not the rise of white supremacy, the ongoing police brutality against blacks, or the persistent racial differences in so many areas of American life.

There were some slave stories that he read as part of his goddaughter’s collection of essays on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Africans on this continent.

The book, The African Experience in Colonial Virginia: Essays on the 1619 Arrival and the Legacy of Slavery, published by Colita Nichols Fairfax in 2021, contained portions of slave narratives that spoke of the amusement enslaved people experienced when they gained their freedom .

Forbes, who also contributed an essay on the book, said he was inspired by the resilience, belief and temperament of blacks over the centuries. That, he said, could be their unique contribution to American society.

“Although blacks have become the object of this hideous institution of slavery, the black presence can have a humanizing dynamic that can help save the soul of this nation,” he said.

The poem he calls meditation is his contribution to what he describes in the last stanza as the hope for what the nation might become:

“When all of God’s children can finally breathe freely
We can celebrate being a true democracy.
Imagine the joy and joy that we will share
When we regain the unity that is already there. “

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