Photograph by Tasha Jolley via Unsplash

What home repairs taught me about Juneteenth

June 19, 2024

Nothing brings out the “inner handyman” in a person like buying a house and not wanting to pay someone else to fix it. In the early years of our marriage, I gained experience hanging shelves, patching drywall, changing electrical outlets, and fixing the plumbing problems. Often, when I would undertake a project, my younger brother was there to help me. 

Most home improvement projects don’t have a reliable timetable. Once into a repair, the true problem reveals itself, and a “15-minute job” turns into the better part of a day. Ten trips to Lowe’s later, you find yourself wondering why you didn’t simply pay someone else. Once while looking down my bathtub drain at my brother’s face in the crawlspace below, I said, “This may have been a mistake.” To which he responded, “It’s a bit too late to do the right thing now!”

Naturally, my wife appreciated regular updates on our work—particularly when the project got more involved. However, we made an important discovery early in our marriage. I am happy to update her on the status of any repair at any point, provided she does not begin any sentence with, “Well, why don’t you just…” That phrase was triggering for me.

I wasn’t sure why it provoked such anger. I assumed it was because I was tired, and often I had already tried what she was suggesting hours before. Her suggestion was a reminder that I was no closer to solving the problem! Those may have contributed to my reaction, but they were only part of the reason. One day my brother and I were struggling with a repair, and he looked at me and said, “Why don’t we just…” and suggested a course of action. In that moment, it clicked. His suggestion didn’t make me angry. In fact, it solved our problem.

“Why don’t we just…” came from someone who had seen what I had seen. He and I had been facing this problem together all day. We saw what hadn’t worked, and we saw what had. On the other hand, “Why don’t you just…” came from someone who only knew the surface level of the problem.

This realization became a parable for me. It has helped me find my way having conversations across communities. When one is not part of a community because of ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity, there are things that can be hard to understand. People outside a culture telling individuals within how they should feel or how they should solve problems is not helpful. It is truly an act of arrogance. Moving from “you” to “we” takes time and work, and there are aspects of different communities we can never fully understand. There are moments that we will always be outside. Understanding when we are “we” and when we are “you” helps us better navigate issues across communities.

We still have far to go. Juneteenth is a chance to remember our country’s practice trailing its aspirations far too slowly.

I thought about this as I thought about Juneteenth this year. When I first encountered the holiday, we had just moved to Texas. A history teacher friend of mine explained Juneteenth as “an African American holiday,” and for years, I thought of it as a holiday for others. While I did have friends who celebrated, my response would be limited to “I hope you had a good day!” Meanwhile, I enjoyed a day off and probably tried to test run my July 4 grill plans.

It was a wasted opportunity. Firstly, Juneteenth is an opportunity for celebration for everyone. It marks a remembrance of freedom for those who had been enslaved. People from my community have the chance to celebrate alongside our African American friends and family. It can be important for white faces like mine to be in the crowd honoring that celebration.

The holiday is a mixed celebration, however, because Juneteenth is a textbook example of “justice delayed.” The Emancipation Proclamation was supposed to go into effect on January 1, 1863 (which began the tradition of the “watch night” services on New Year’s Eve in the Black church tradition); however, its enforcement in Texas didn’t come until the end of the Civil War on June 19, 1865. Juneteenth celebrates freedom coming too late.

Unfortunately, this is not an aberration but a trend. Too often—if not always—our country’s declarations and aspirations are not quite matched by its practice. The Declaration of Independence said that “all men are created equal” in July 1776. But in 1787, enslaved persons were only valued at 3/5 of a human being. The 13th Amendment in 1865 was written to free ALL the enslaved from unpaid labor, except the incarcerated. The 14th Amendment in 1868 explicitly declared the Bill of Rights applied to everyone—except Native Americans. Women’s rights had to be included separately with the 19th Amendment in 1920. It took Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, and the Civil Rights Act in 1964 (after a 3-month filibuster) to try to reach the baseline declared two hundred years before in 1776. And, truthfully, we still have far to go. Juneteenth is a chance to remember our country’s practice trailing its aspirations far too slowly.

As a white man, I know I can’t always turn my “you” into a “we.” There are elements of shared experience, hope, and pain within cultures that I will always be outside. I need to recognize those and, in those moments, spend my time humbly listening and offering what ministry of presence that I can. I certainly do not need to begin any sentence with “Why don’t you just…”

My complexion, however, does afford me the chance to speak truth to the community that is fully “we” for me. For us, Juneteenth should serve as a caution and challenge. We can do better. We can work for our aspirations to match our practice. We can do all we can to see that justice is not delayed any longer. It’s never too late to do the right thing now. We can find our place to work within the wondrously diverse body of Christ. If we do that well, then that is something we can all celebrate.

Rev. Dr. Robert Wallace is senior pastor, McLean Baptist Church, McLean, Virginia.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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