Sammie Alexander, my mother and Juneteenth descendent, New York. Image by Damari McBride

My Mother, the Juneteenth descendent

My mother, Sammie, who we call ‘Susu,’ was born in the 1940s in Texas. In her lifetime, she’s been an opera singer, a school teacher, a social worker, hospital administrator, community caregiver, housecleaner, home aid, wife, mother, writer, poet, pianist, scholar, and dreamer. Much of what she knows about her family is from the stories of her older siblings and death certificates. Both her parents died when she was very little, so her personal search for belonging helped her to uncover valuable and important details in her family tree. Her father was born in 1893 in Texas. His father, her grandpa, was born in Texas and enslaved before he ever left his mother’s womb. Her mother’s grandfather was a man brought from the west coast of Africa into the port of Charleston, South Carolina, sold into slavery, eventually taken to Texas, and for the family members who were able to recount their memories of him to my mother, he was simply known as “The African.” He was likely into his 80s or 90s when he died, which is why my mother’s older sisters, born in 1919 and the 1920s, were old enough to have vague memories of him. When I have these conversations with my mom, I often ask her to go through the timeline over and over again. I think for me, born in the 1980s, it seems wild and almost unbelievable, that my aunties knew people who had been enslaved, and those people were my people.

 

Last year during the pandemic, my mom got sick (not with COVID), but sick enough to be hospitalized. I have never seen my mom that sick in my life. I remember when I was finally allowed to visit and I stared at the purple ‘DNR’ bracelet around her wrist. I was trying to think whether or not I could remember everything she had taught me. As I listened to the doctors explain the details of her treatment and how she would recover (thankfully), I also remember feeling small again. The last time I had been in this exact place, this feeling, I was about 9 or 10 years old. My dad was sick and had just come home from the hospital. I stood by his bed in our house in Brooklyn listening to the home care aide outline how to care for him. Unlike my mom, I knew my dad would never recover. Even though I’m the youngest of 6 kids, they were all off and living their lives. So, again, just like 9-year-old baby Myeashea, I stood alone and listened carefully, but this time I wasn’t filled with the feeling I know understand as dread. I was definitely grateful that she would be fine, and I had the honor of being able to care for the most important person that would ever exist in my life.

Me, Susu, Peach, and Damari taking my mom to a lake upstate NY, 2020.

As I waited for my Uber and made my way back to her quiet apartment, I thought about how much I wanted to preserve her stories and experiences beyond my own memories. I don’t remember much about my dad because I didn’t spend a lot of time with him. I didn’t want that to happen with my mom even though she and I spent my whole life with her. There were over 40 years of time where I didn’t exist! So, I wanted to be sure I had access to whatever she would share with me. I truly understand the importance of oral history, but in the age of the iPhone, I thought I could do a little better. Within months, we returned to our apartment in Brooklyn, broke leases, drained our savings, packed up our lives, and moved 10 minutes away from my mom. (I think I should take a minute to note that I really do have the most understanding and coolest partner in the world. There was not a single argument other than, “why didn’t we do this sooner?”)

 

As Juneteenth 2021 approached, I thought about how this would be the first time in over a decade we’d all be together. My partner, a Michigander, had never heard of Juneteenth until he met me. I wasn’t surprised as most people I knew, Black or otherwise, didn’t know what Juneteenth was. In fact, thanks to Facebook memories, I saw that I was posting about Juneteenth every year for over a decade, and looking at the engagement on those posts, I was pretty much screaming into the void. I decided I now was a good time to record my mom’s memories of Juneteenth and also ask why she had stopped those celebrations when I was little. Now, I’ll share her story with all of you.

I hit the large red button on the voice memo app and asked my mom what she did on Juneteenth when she was little? Here’s her interview in her words and voice.

*My mom was orphaned twice by the time she was 6 years old, so most of her memories are of her time with her adopted family, the Holmans (Eva and Douglas), and the neighborhood she lived in.

After the Civil War, there were many African- American towns that would thrive through our economic self-determination. They also provided some amount of safety and opportunity for Black people. Efforts like “The Black Towns Project” have helped to locate and document these towns and the stories of the people who lived there for posterity. As my mom shared her memories, I realized that Juneteenth, or Jubilee Day, was a celebration of survival and hope for her and her community. It was also an opportunity to connect and celebrate hopeful visions for the future. In this clip, my mom spoke about the role of Black business owners, her parents, the food, and the community that she describes as being much like the “Black Wall Street” that is often referenced to Tulsa, Oklahoma.

 

Susu and my two older brothers

My mom and her family left their Texas home eventually and she moved to New Mexico in her pre-teen years. She would meet my dad, a preacher, at the age of 15, and marry him by the age of 19. They had two boys (my brother’s Robert and John) before leaving New Mexico and moving to Arizona where they would have 4 more kids over the following 20 years. The first 5 children (my siblings) were relatively close in age, so they did a lot together. My mom kept them fairly close. My mom wasn’t much for socializing, but community continued to play an important role in her observance of Juneteenth. She told me that they would sometimes go to the local park near the projects in Arizona where a lot of Black people lived and would have Juneteenth events. She said she tried to connect the kids to those events. My sister, Ardy, confirmed that she remembered mom taking them to those events, but the kids mostly kept to themselves where they were most comfortable.

Not only was I the baby of the family, but there is also a significant age gap between me and the next youngest child, Ardy. I was also the only one raised in NY. Because of that, I had a very different experience with Juneteenth and community then they did. I was a little surprised to hear that there were Juneteenth events in Arizona. Here my mom talks about how those events came to exist in their AZ communities.

 

Two weeks after I was born my family relocated to Poughkeepsie, NY. We went from Church of God In Christ (COGIC) to the Lutheran church and were placed in a German community upstate NY. My mom gently reminds me that I share the same birthday as her birth mother, Martha, who died shortly after she was born. I always smile when she tells me that. I know that knowledge makes me extra special to her.

 

I asked my mom why there were no Juneteenth celebrations after I was born? I mentioned that she hadn’t even really taught me about it.

 

With all of her energy focused on the basic survival of our core family, Juneteenth traditions, regardless of their significance, fell by the wayside. The Juneteenth holiday celebrations were so connected to the community, so without the Black community, Juneteenth exited the Alexander household. This included even talking about the holiday and its meaning. My mom told me a bit more about why.

 

Sammie's children, Juneteenth descendants, my sibs!

My mom would occasionally mention Juneteenth when I was little, but it was always in connection to church and community. This meant I thought or assumed that Juneteenth was one of those Black church celebrations like “First Fridays” or “Women’s Day.” I was never a religious person. Church involvement and religion just didn’t connect with me, even as I attended church schools and my dad was a preacher. Since I assumed Juneteenth was a church thing, I never really thought to explore more. I was more than content with the separation of church and Myeashea. As my mom filled in some blanks, I realized how important community was in the act of maintaining tradition and preserving Black history especially in a country that did not/ does not consider our history and experiences of value though they benefit from our labor and ingenuity daily.

 

“Mom, how do you want to celebrate Juneteenth now?”

My mom couldn’t care less about Juneteenth being a federal holiday. Her concerns are more focused on the preservation and progression of the rights of the oppressed in the US. It doesn’t mean that Juneteenth is not important to her, but my mom talked some about how systemic inequalities have “always meant Black folks needed to create our own celebrations and opportunities. The government gave us trash, we cultivated Eden, and then they pushed us out. Gentrification, eminent domain or whatever. It’s thievery.  I’d rather they do something about the ways they still kill us and disenfranchise us over making Juneteenth a federal holiday. We gotta celebrate us. They don’t even want children to learn about Juneteenth in the classroom, but yeah, make it a holiday,” she snickers.

 

Preach, Su. 

 

The long time fight for civil rights is something my mom is well acquainted with. Both my parents were activists. They would with places like Urban League, Head Start, NAACP, and more throughout their lives. In fact, by the time the Civil Rights Act was passed, my oldest brother was a year old. When the Voting Rights Act was passed, my mom had both of my brothers. When I was putting together my family’s historical timeline, realizing that fact was very sobering. Those acts are practically in their infancy, and still being fought for at this moment. It’s funny what people try to make you believe is past.

In a span of 20 years, had something she’d seen not trigger a memory, Juneteenth might have gone extinct to our family. When I was younger, I never heard anyone talk about Juneteenth, and I attended Black schools in Brooklyn, NY at least from 3rd to 8th grade. I just didn’t meet anyone who celebrated or talked about it. Juneteenth as a federal holiday makes me happy to not use a vacation day to celebrate. It makes me excited that community celebrations have been reinvigorated over the last few years. I’m happy that my mom’s lost traditions are finding their way home. That said, I’m also concerned that important and affirming African- American traditions and celebrations will be trivialized, commodified, and packaged into BOGO mattress sales- again.

 

One of the details my mom shared with me about her experience as a child was the importance of the “old folks-” the storytellers that passed down community stories, historical events, and cultural perspectives of the Black community.

 

My mom recalled two very special ladies, Miss Edna and Miss Suzy, who were her community griots.

 

Because my mother had been orphaned twice by the time she was 6 years old, storytelling helped to fill in the gaps of her family tree, her memory and build connections to the family she would never meet and create an identity. She talked about some of the gaps her siblings would fill and why some of her questions weren’t always welcome.

So, how will we celebrate Juneteenth this year? I’m going to cook with my mom. We’ll make the recipes that have been passed down to her the little old ladies of her communities who taught her. I’m committed to learn how to make her greens. We’ll drink strawberry soda, and fuss at each other. Damari will roll around on the floor with Peach waiting for my mom to call him and help her get the heavy cast iron skillet out of the oven. We’ll watch our favorite shows, and my mom will tell stories all day. It’ll be glorious and the first time in my adult life that we get to celebrate with my mom in person. Traditions help us create and nurture group connections and links. They play vital role in shaping our identities and culture. Learning and realllllly listening to my mother’s experiences and memories made me hold my head a little higher, puff my chest out a little more. I hope every Black person I know kicks back as hard as possible this weekend! 

From my family to yours, Happy Juneteenth!