Waiting for a parade,
I hear sirens and drums far in the distance.
A helicopter is chop chop chopping overhead.
I sit alone in the shade of a tree on the parkway
No one else on the block.
Black Americans have been waiting 158 years for a parade.
Truth be told
They’ve been waiting centuries longer than that.
Enduring and overcoming cruelties and hardships even animals would never encounter.
Kidnapped. Shackled. Stacked in ship holds. Poked and prodded and inspected like cattle. Sold. Separated from family. Whipped. Beaten. Brutalized. Raped. Murdered. Denied literacy. Denied education. Sold and resold. After slavery, lynched. Segregated. Forced to use different water fountains, bathrooms, restaurants, hotels, schools, seats on a bus. Denied the vote. Discriminated against in employment. Paid less. Kept from getting loans and mortgages, and restricted on where to live and buy homes. Incarcerated in mass numbers. Forced into prison labor, the new slavery. Hosed and attacked with dogs when they protested. Tortured into confessions by police. Choked to death and riddled with bullets during arrest. Enslaved, lynched, segregated, discriminated against, arrested.
All simply for being Black.
At the head of the Oak Park Juneteenth Parade is a horse and carriage carrying a Black Beauty Queen, Miss Windy City. Next is a classic car driven by one of the village’s Juneteenth celebration founders. Then three floats with politicians and village workers and other community members.
Black people on the floats, waving, smiling, see me, a white man, seated at the curb and instead of “Happy Juneteenth,” they greet me with “Happy Father’s Day.”
Next, a pick-up truck drives by with kids tossing out little frisbees, the truck’s radio loudly playing “Fight the Power.”
Twenty more people have now gathered on the block. A white woman comes out of her house and jokes, “Look, a parade for Father’s Day!”
Next comes a truck promoting Stride Fitness, a large black, red, and green American flag hanging from its back, unadorned people walking behind it.
Now the drumbeat that was faint and far away is upon us. A Black trumpet player and three drummers loudly, boldly, proudly, musically proclaiming, Juneteenth! Juneteenth! Freedom! Freedom!
Followed not by a great procession of everyday people waving freedom banners and Juneteenth flags, but a grey SUV with a politician’s name on it, lightly tapping its car horn.
The trumpet and the drums fade, and the parade seems over, only minutes after it started.
We walk two blocks toward the after-parade community picnic. We hear rumors that more parade is yet to come so we wait at the end of the parade route for another float to catch up with us, if there is one. Time passes. Kids ride their bikes in the empty street. More people — Black and white — have now coalesced on the curbs like bees on the edge of a birdbath.
There is curiosity, patience, maybe even longing … but the tail of the parade is faint, far, and slow in coming.
Black Americans are waiting for a parade.
How do we celebrate Juneteenth? How do we make it ours, a moment for all of us to learn and grow and own as ours, Black, white, Latino, Asian, everyone? How do we properly honor all the pain and ugliness of slavery and the century and a half of abuse inflicted on Black people in America since slavery, without alienating from the event or failing to attract to the event those who are not Black?
The descendants of enslaved Black Americans deserve a parade. A parade that recognizes all that their generations have endured and overcome and are still facing. A parade on a street lined with Juneteenth flags. People singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Marchers carrying banners with the words of both Black and white Americans, who over the centuries have devoted their lives to fighting racial injustice.
Is this that parade?
Maybe 20 minutes later, the tail of the parade finally catches up to us. The Jesse White Tumblers perform flying flips in the street. Black women agilely jump double ropes. The Oak Park Área Lesbian & Gay Association Plus hands out plastic rainbow-colored OPALGA+ bracelets. A pickup truck encourages attendees to support local Black beer brewers. The Oak Park Public Library hands out Juneteenth booklets. Other community organizations parade their banners: The Historical Society of Oak Park & River Forest, Oak Park Township, Senior Services of Oak Park & River Forest, and Kinfolk CoLab, an organization that provides social justice support for Black, indigenous, and other people of color. A fire truck, two Black cowboys on horseback, three police cars, and the Oak Park Juneteenth Parade is over.
I’m a white man at a parade honoring the horrible history to which white people have subjected generations of Black people over centuries. I don’t know my place, or how I’m to be seated. And when Black people in the parade wish me Happy Father’s Day, instead of Happy Juneteenth, I know they’re not quite sure how to seat me either. Do I clap and shout hurrah, or hang my head and stay away?
A new holiday requires new traditions. This parade was a first effort, and it should be forgiven its shortcomings. But I want it to be more than it was. I want it to reach for more than it seems to be reaching for. More than anything, more than jumping acrobatics and politicians in cars and on podiums, more than publicity for local organizations, more than free food at a post-parade picnic in the park, I want the village’s Juneteenth events to educate and illuminate us about our country’s slaveholding and Jim Crow past. I want them to show both Blacks and whites how we can come together to more fully remember and understand this horrible history.
Too much of it is too abstract, too long ago, too disconnected to too many of us. Only in understanding it more fully, in detail, in the stories of real individuals who experienced it, and the descendants who still grapple with it, can we ever come to terms with it and move forward together.
“The history of slavery is the history of the United States,” says poet and writer Clint Smith. We need to make Juneteenth an American holiday, not just a Black holiday.
Maybe a white man has no right, no standing, to say how Juneteenth should be observed. But to grow closer together, I believe we need to find a way that brings us together in the public square in a meaningful remembrance and observance of the horror that was slavery and Jim Crow. We need to tell the stories out loud, unvarnished, together. Black Americans deserve nothing less. We all deserve nothing less.
Black Americans deserve a parade.
Mark Wallace is a resident of Oak Park.