On Tuesday, as we commemorated Juneteenth, the day that enslaved Africans in Texas learned that the Emancipation Proclamation had freed them, I was struck by the fact that Texas remains the center of America’s war on children of color.
On a day when I should have been reflecting on freedom, I was instead seeing images of caged brown children crying out for their parents from a Texas holding facility. I was listening to government officials like U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions trying to justify this cruelty with biblical and legal references. I was witnessing a replay of the suffering of black children who were snatched from their parents with the blessing of America’s government.
On this day, when I should have been celebrating freedom for my people, I was instead left to ponder America’s unchanging posture toward people of color. That’s because the Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy — which has resulted in nearly 2,000 immigrant children being separated from their parents over six weeks in April and May — seeks to dehumanize brown undocumented families in the same way slavery devalued the families of the enslaved.
The Trump administration says the policy is grounded in current immigration law and court rulings that force authorities to separate parents from children at the border. Numerous media outlets and immigration experts have said the policy is not driven by the law, but is instead driven by the Trump administration choosing to take children from their parents as a means of discouraging illegal immigration.
This does so much more than discourage border crossings, however. It devalues humanity in the same way slavery did. Looking at the images of children being held in cages is like looking at a physical manifestation of experiences I’ve only read about in slave narratives.
One such story is included in the Maryland State Archives, in the slave narrative of Charles Ball, a man who lived 40 years as a slave in Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia. He told of how he was snatched from his mother as a child.
“But my poor mother, when she saw me leaving her for the last time, ran after me, took me down from the horse, clasped me in her arms, and wept loudly and bitterly over me. My master seemed to pity her, and endeavored to soothe her distress by telling her that he would be a good master to me, and that I should not want any thing. She then, still holding me in her arms, walked along the road beside the horse as he moved slowly, and earnestly and imploringly besought my master to buy her and the rest of her children, and not permit them to be carried away by the Negro buyers.
“But whilst thus entreating him to save her and her family, the slave-driver, who had first bought her, came running in pursuit of her with a raw hide in his hand. When he overtook us he told her he was her master now, and ordered her to give that little Negro to its owner, and come back with him. My mother then turned to him and cried, “Oh, master, do not take me from my child!” Without making any reply, he gave her two or three heavy blows on the shoulders with his raw hide, snatched me from her arms, handed me to my master, and seizing her by one arm, dragged her back towards the place of sale.”
This is what I see when I watch children being taken from their parents as part of a government policy. I see America once again treating brown children as objects to be used and manipulated, and I am appalled. Not because I see what is happening to other people, but because I am watching a repetition of what happened to my own.
For some, this is a political discussion that will drive voter choices during the upcoming midterm elections. For others, it is a legal discussion that could very well be settled in the courts as various state Attorneys General prepare to sue.
For me, however, this is a living, breathing portrait of what life must have been like for my ancestors in a country where their children could be taken at the slaveholder’s whim.
All of us, no matter our background, must refuse to allow our government to repeat the dehumanization of children that took place during slavery.
That’s why, moving forward, Juneteenth must be far more than a celebration of freedoms past. It must also be a demand for today’s children to be treated with human dignity.