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Juneteenth is a new holiday for many Americans. For my family, it’s always been personal

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I’ve covered some of my research successes in other stories, like 2020’s “Juneteenth: We’re still on the road to freedom and justice,” but I have not shared many of my thoughts about Texas.

Texas has a strange history when it comes to Black folks and enslavement, as documented here in the “Free Blacks” entry in the Handbook of Texas, from the Texas State Historical Association.

As of 1792 the Black and mulatto population constituted 15 percent of the 2,992 people living in Spanish Texas. Within the Spanish empire, the legal status of free Blacks resembled that of the Indian population. The law required free Blacks to pay tribute, forbade them to carry firearms, and restricted their freedom of movement. In practice Spanish officials ignored such restrictions, often encouraging the manumission of slaves. The small number of Spanish subjects in Texas and the vast distances between settlements also brought about the intermarriage of Whites, Blacks, and Indians. While most free Blacks in Texas before 1800 were born there, thereafter an increased emigration to Texas of free Blacks and some escaped slaves from the southern United States began to take place. After the Mexican War of Independence (1821), the Mexican government offered free Blacks full rights of citizenship, allowing land ownership and other privileges. Mexico accepted free Blacks as equals to White colonists. Favorable conditions for free Blacks in Texas in the 1830s led one noted abolitionist, Benjamin Lundy, to seek authorization for the establishment of a Black colony from the United States. While the Mexican government expressed interest in the idea, opposition from Whites in Texas and the United States precluded its implementation. Free Blacks, as did other frontiersmen, continued to emigrate to Texas seeking an opportunity for advancement and a better life. […]

The Constitution of the Republic of Texas designated people of one-eighth African blood as a separate and distinct group, took away citizenship, sought to restrict property rights, and forbade the permanent residence of free Blacks without the approval of the Congress of the Republic of Texas. Interracial marriages were also legally prohibited. Ironically, local communities and legislators that favored the new provisions often did not want them enforced within their districts. Documents show that prominent Whites were known to intercede on behalf of free Blacks in danger of being prosecuted by the new regulations. A stricter law passed in 1840, which gave free Blacks two years to leave Texas or risk being sold into slavery, was effectively postponed by President Sam Houston. […]

After annexation, the legislature passed stricter laws governing the lives of free Blacks. These new laws called for harsh punishments usually reserved only for slaves, including branding, whipping, and forced labor on public works. In 1858 the legislature even passed a law that encouraged free Blacks to reenter slavery voluntarily by allowing them to choose their own masters. The increased restrictions and the rise in White hostility resulted in a virtual halt to additional free Black immigration to Texas and may have caused a reduction in the Texas population of free Blacks. The United States census reported 397 free Blacks in Texas in 1850 and 355 in 1860, though there may have been an equal number of free Blacks not counted.

That timeline became particularly relevant when my search for my first cousin’s Texan family hit that brick wall. They do not appear in any listing of free Blacks, therefore, they must have been enslaved. I knew that Anna Gibson was listed in the Freedman’s Bank Records as born in Texas around 1823. Her daughter Idella was listed as born in 1861, also in Texas. My uncle Louis—Idella’s grandson—said she was born in Galveston. That’s all I know. My family is luckier than most Black folks, as we have a picture of Idella when she was an adult.

Idella Gibson

What is clear from that photograph is that Idella has white ancestry. What does that mean for Anna, the enslaved woman who was Idella’s mother?

We may never know. But we do know that many children were born into slavery and kept enslaved, in spite of having white fathers. We also know that enslaved Black women were raped and bred for profit. Further, we know that in parts of the South, mixed-race Black women were often kept as concubines.

Anna got out of Texas as soon as she could and moved to Maryland, where she opened a sewing school. She was listed in the 1870 census there.

Now comes the hard part: Imagining her life under the yoke of enslavement. None of it is pretty. None of it fits the fairy tales offered to white children about “happy darkies” on the plantation lazing their days away. Nowhere in those fabrications are those “massa’s offspring” mentioned.

As some of you may know, the Black community has problems with “colorism,” an artificially developed hierarchy based on light-skin and European hair texture. On the other hand, and less discussed, is the ugly underbelly to which those fair complexions point; realities which often don’t get openly talked about in families, or are tales only shared in whispers among the elders. This unspoken “downside” of being light-skinned continues to this day. I have a friend who was much fairer than her parents. She was dubbed “trick baby” in the school yard, the other kids sneeringly insinuating that her mama had been a sex worker impregnated by a white “trick.”

There are thousands upon thousands of Black families with ancestors who were light-skinned with European-textured hair. Most have long opted to claim Native American heritage to explain away that great-grandma whose “hair was so long she could sit on it.” In most of those cases, DNA testing disproved those family legends. Think of the “why” for these narratives: Few people want to loudly proclaim that their great-grandma was repeatedly raped and brutalized by her owner (or the overseer), which is why Grandma looked like she did.

In a quick check of the 1880 census (using my Ancestry.com database) I find 1,017,015 people listed as “mulatto,” and 5,572,280 listed as Black; the 1870 census listed 629,806 “mulatto” people, and 4,140,145 people as Black. Census takers weren’t “race” scientists, of course; they weren’t offering DNA tests to prove ancestry. Instead, they simply eyeballed a person and determined whether they were or were not a “full-blooded” Black person, based solely on their skin color, facial features, and hair texture. 

In 2014, I wrote the following in “The ‘other’ U.S. slave trade”:

I once wrote about myself that “I am the product of a bicentennial of breeding farms.” Some of my enslaved ancestors looked whiter than many “white” people, like my great-grandfather Dennis Williams.

My great grandfather - Loudoun County VA - born to enslaved Hannah Carter, father - white man
My great grandfather, Dennis Williams, who was born to an enslaved mother, Hannah Carter, and freed

They were not descendants of Irish indentured women who had children with Black indentured men. They were born out of the rape of their mothers by overseers and/or owners.

In Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History, Gregory Smithers takes on the naysayers:

For over two centuries, the topic of slave breeding has occupied a controversial place in the master narrative of American history. From nineteenth-century abolitionists to twentieth-century filmmakers and artists, Americans have debated whether slave owners deliberately and coercively manipulated the sexual practices and marital status of enslaved African Americans to reproduce new generations of slaves for profit.

In this bold and provocative book, historian Gregory Smithers investigates how African Americans have narrated, remembered, and represented slave-breeding practices. He argues that while social and economic historians have downplayed the significance of slave breeding, African Americans have refused to forget the violence and sexual coercion associated with the plantation South. By placing African American histories and memories of slave breeding within the larger context of America’s history of racial and gender discrimination, Smithers sheds much-needed light on African American collective memory, racialized perceptions of fragile black families, and the long history of racially motivated violence against men, women, and children of color.

This is an ugly history we cannot ignore. So today, though I’ll celebrate Juneteenth, I’ll continue to think about Anna from Galveston. Maybe one day I’ll luck out and find someone who also has her in their family tree, and find out not just more of her story, but more of my kin.

The nightmare of enslavement finally ended on this day in 1865, but those of us descended from those who were freed back then have not all had a happy ending. In fact, the persecution faced by Black Americans has not ended at all.

We are simply in another chapter of a book that is not yet finished. We will, however, get to see the impact of Juneteenth being made a federal holiday; it passed the Senate via unanimous consent on June 15, passed in the House on the 16th with a vote of 415 to 14, and President Biden signed it into law on the 17th.

It’s been a long haul to get to this point in the road, and we still have farther to go. This victory along the way should lift our spirits and move us forward.


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Luis Grijalva’s DACA status put halt to his Olympic dreams. A last-minute approval has changed that

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Grijalva and Jessica Smith Bobadilla, his attorney, “were unsure whether immigration officials would be able to grant Grijalva permission on time, but on Monday, he got cleared to travel after weeks of uncertainty,” CNN reported. Advance parole, the process that allows some DACA recipients to travel internationally for employment, humanitarian, or educational purposes, can take as long as 90 days to get approved, she told CNN.

They said they put together “a very detailed” application, then traveled to a USCIS in Phoenix to continue pleading their case. “Tomorrow morning I will be marching down the USCIS office in Phoenix to make one last effort in gaining an advance parole that allows me to leave the country and be able to return safely,” he wrote in an Instagram post the day before. Following the good news Monday, he told The New York Times“[i]t’s just a lot of emotions—excitement, just really happy.”

But even though he’s lived here since he was a baby and has excelled in American competitions and American schools (including winning a full scholarship to Northern Arizona University), Grijalva will be competing with the Guatemalan running team in Tokyo. CNN reports “he couldn’t represent the US in the Olympics for several reasons, including his immigration status.” The Times reported that the time Grijalva finished at last month’s NCAA race is a national record in Guatemala.

“It would be pretty special to represent Guatemala at the Olympics,” he said in that report. “To be able to represent my parents and my roots—that was where I started.” In his Instagram post the day before traveling to the Phoenix USCIS office, Grijalva had also said he was seeking “to be a voice and represent over 600,000 Dreamers like me.”

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The only thing Grijalva should have been worrying about right now was the competition itself, yet his immigration status would have ended his Olympic dreams for now if the last-minute approval hadn’t come through. But even that process is on shaky ground: When DACA was killed by the previous administration in 2017, so was advance parole. While it was forced to reinstate the program under court order last year, a federal judge this month has halted new applications for now. The lives of Grijalva and many others will continue to be in limbo until there’s permanent relief.

Democrats right now have the best chance in years to pass a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants, as well as temporary status holders and essential workers. Just this week, more than 80 mayors across nearly 30 states issued a call to President Joe Biden and legislators to pass legalization through the budget reconciliation process, writing that “it’s time for Congress to act.”

“It is a failure of our government not to move forward in passing comprehensive immigration reform,” Tucson mayor and letter signatory Regina Romero said during a press call this week. “Now, we have the chance to pass a comprehensive plan for those who stepped up to support our country during the pandemic while contributing to our economy. For more than two decades, Congress has failed to act and now is the perfect opportunity through reconciliation.”

“I’ve been here for 21 years, some ways I feel as American as anybody else who was born here but just that having that birthright, that being born here, just takes away so many opportunities for myself but also for everyone else who’s on DACA,” Grijalva said according to CNN.


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New energy data shows solar and wind rising as ‘King Coal’ continues an epic crash

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That chart comes from a report issued by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) on Wednesday morning. And it looks like this:

Renewable sources replace coal as the nation’s second largest source of electricity.

The headline here is certainly worth celebrating: Renewable sources of energy are now the second-largest source of electricity in America, generating 21% of the total. It’s not actually the first time this has happened; back in 1950 when the agency first began, hydro power was the nation’s No. 2 source of electricity. But there are only so many places that can be, or should be, dammed to produce electricity and unfortunately, coal is abundant. The next 60 years were the Age of Coal, with that most destructive of fossil fuels growing ever more dominant. 

But what’s happened since 2005 is genuinely amazing. King Coal was toppled from his throne in a revolution that was one part natural gas fracking and one part increasingly cheap wind and solar. And this is the first time that the EIA has placed production from renewables above that of coal.

The reason natural gas grew so rapidly over the last two decades is easy to describe. Gas is easily used in the same kind of steam-cycle power production as coal, but it has several advantages. First, gas need not be stored in huge stockpiles on the ground—stockpiles that are subject to both weathering and to spontaneously catching fire. Second, burning gas produces a lot of CO2, but in terms of other byproducts, it’s almost infinitely cleaner than coal so there’s no need for expensive “scrubbers” that eliminate things such as the sulfur dioxide from coal that causes acid rain. Third, gas doesn’t leave behind tons of ash that has to be stored in great eroding mounds or slurry pools that constantly threaten to flood the area in toxic sludge.

But more important than any of that, gas plants can be small. Utilities can create gas generators of almost every size, and simply add more when needed. Coal plants range from merely huge to absolutely titanic, and the economies of coal make it difficult to scale them up or down.

So why didn’t companies use gas to begin with? Because before the mid-1990s, the price of natural gas varied widely. That made gas suitable for building small “peaking” plants that could handle extra demand on those days when the grid was at maximum demand, but left cheaper coal to carry the main demand. It was only after fracking became widespread and the price of gas stabilized at a rate that made it competitive with coal that the big switchover began.

What’s striking about the renewables line on the chart is how fast it doesn’t grow until about 2005. That line reflects mostly more hydro power, small-scale solar, and an irregular trickle of wind projects over the span of decades. It’s not until prices for both wind and solar became cost-competitive with coal that things started to change quickly. The decades in which annual changes in renewables could be measured in a fraction of a percentage point charge abruptly into a steady rise, and the rate of that rise is increasing. 

By 2018, the cost of building new solar or wind power from scratch had reached a point where it was less than the cost of simply maintaining an existing coal plant, even ignoring the cost of coal. That’s a powerful incentive to switch. Even as Donald Trump was talking about how he was going to “save” the coal industry, it was plummeting in a near freefall, shedding both capacity and workers.

Overall, what the chart shows is just this: Things can change. With the right motivations, they can change quickly. The one problem with this chart is that it might tempt everyone to just sit back and let the market handle it. After all, the last two decades show that gigawatts of production can change almost overnight when dollars are on the line.

Only there are reasons that the government still has to shove, and shove hard, to make things move rapidly enough and in the right direction.

  • Gas is cheap. Thanks to fracking, there is an absolute glut of natural gas—so much that at several points, all the storage facilities in the nation have been nearly choked with the stuff. How long will fracking allow fields from Texas to North Dakota to Pennsylvania to continue producing at a record pace? No one knows. But right now the use of natural gas is still increasing. That means more CO2 and more spilled methane. 
  • Innovation needs to come home. When Republicans fume about Chinese solar panels, they’re at least half right. Part of the price reduction for solar has come through availability of cheap panels manufactured mostly in China or India. The U.S. continues to make breakthroughs in solar cell efficiency, but needs help in turning those improvements into an industry that sees American panels being shipped around the world.
  • Inequity is a market inevitability. Left to itself, the market will gradually close out coal plants and create more renewables. But it will also leave behind ecological disasters. Coal is a dying extraction industry. What such industries leave behind are unreclaimed lands, crumbling plants, and communities in ruin. Government intervention is absolutely necessary if this failing industry is going to be ushered out the door in a way that gives workers and the surrounding areas a soft landing rather than seeing coal executives wave bye-bye beneath golden parachutes. And the government needs to pay particular attention to both cleaning up and providing jobs to communities of color, which are often right in the zones of heaviest pollution.
  • It’s not fast enough. The chart shows the energy industry can change more quickly than anyone believed. Now it has to change faster. We don’t have more decades to make this transition, not when every wasted year represents more of that drought, fire, and flood we mentioned back at the beginning.

The abrupt change in America’s energy mix should be good news to everyone. Even if much of that production has switched to natural gas, it shows that enormous change is possible. 

Now let’s make it happen again. Faster.


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Latino officer and U.S. military vet says insurrectionists told him ‘you’re not even an American’

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Gonell testified during the hearing that at first he was “not even entertaining” this claim. “I mean, when I heard that, I wasn’t even thinking about any racial stuff.” He was just trying to survive the mob’s attack, which resulted in five deaths and hundreds of injuries. “Two other officers killed themselves after,” the Associated Press reported. Officers were “pulled into the crowd and trampled, assaulted with scaffolding materials, and/or bear maced by protesters,” an Arlington County Fire Department memo stated, the AP continued.

But Gonell said that only with some time did he realize what had been said to him, telling legislators that “it takes time for you to process that, and you only realize what was happening after you go back and see it from a different point in time.” He was just trying to do the job he was sworn to do, he said. “I’m there to stop them regardless. I’m not thinking what they were yelling in terms of my skin color or my race. I know I’m an American former soldier and a police officer. I didn’t take that into account when I was defending all of you guys.”

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The officer’s experience drives home the point that for racists, there’s simply nothing a person of color can do or achieve to be fully accepted as what they believe an American to be. To them, a person who isn’t white simply can’t be an American. Even if they’ve lived here since they were a child, even if they served in the U.S. military for eight years, even if it’s literally there on a piece of paper, or in their heart. Yet the white terrorists trying to overthrow the election dared to call him un-American.

“I was falsely accused of betraying my oath, of choosing my paycheck over my loyalty to the US Constitution, even as I defended the very democratic process that protected everyone in the hostile crowd,” Gonell continued. “While I was at the lower west terrace of the Capitol working with my fellow officers to prevent the breach and restore order, the rioters called me traitor, a disgrace and that I, an Army veteran and a police officer, should be executed.”

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Gonell said during his testimony that even relatives abroad were “frantically” trying to contact him to see if he was safe after watching images of the siege on television. “More than six months later, I’m still trying to recover from my injuries,” he said. “I could have lost my life that day, not once but many times. But as soon as I recover from my injuries, I will continue forward and proudly serve my country in the US Capitol Police. As an immigrant to the United States, I’m especially proud to have defended the US Constitution and our democracy on January 6th.”

Of course, Gonell wasn’t the only officer of color to be assaulted with verbal attacks in addition to physical blows. From the very start of his first campaign, when he called Mexicans criminals and “rapists” and then two brothers took a metal pipe to an unhoused Mexican American man in Boston in 2015, racist violence has been a key tenet of the previous president’s beliefs.

Capitol Police Pfc. Harry Dunn told the committee he has sought therapy and continues to struggle with emotional scars left by the assault, which became racially charged for him as a Black member of law enforcement,” Daily Kos’ Kerry Eleveld wrote yesterday. “The officer in fact described “a ‘torrent’ of racially offensive epithets,” she continued. “”Boooo! Fucking n****!’ they screamed, recalled Dunn. ‘No one had ever, ever, called me a n***** while wearing the uniform of a Capitol Police Officer,’ Dunn added.”

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“I hope that everyone in the position of authority in our country has the courage and conviction to do their part by investigating what happened on that terrible day and why,” Gonell continued. “This investigation is essential to our democracy, and I’m deeply grateful to you for undertaking. I’m happy to assist as I can and answer any question you may have to the best of my ability.” I’d say he’s done more than enough already (and I don’t mean only his service on Jan. 6). The question now is what we’re going to do for him.


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