I call myself a city country California girl. When I say this, most don’t understand and when I explain that my grandmother’s house in 2020 is on a road that still doesn’t have a sidewalk, most still don’t believe me.
As a child, I was able to experience all that California had to offer. From beaches to mountains, sunshine to snow, fishing to surfing, cows and pigs walking down my grandma’s road to seeing boa constrictors and ferrets as pets in SoCal. When my parents split and my mom moved to the city of Los Angeles, my time was split between there and a very agricultural central California. My dad worked so I spent a lot of time 18 miles north of Fresno, my hometown, with my grandma in a town called Madera.
As you can expect, with me spending a lot of time with her, my grandma Bessie helped shape who I am. She was born in 1922 in Watonga, OK and moved to Madera, CA in the early 40s. She was a country girl in every sense of the word and introduced me to so many things. As a young widow, she raised 5 kids, worked as a domestic worker, managed to volunteer as a Grey Lady in the local hospital and with the local Blind Center of Madera. She also volunteered with the Garden Club, an organization that raised money for scholarships to help African American students go to college. Ms. Bessie Lee was the first African American to be honored as ‘Mother of the Year’ in Madera on May 7, 1965. She was my inspiration.
As a young girl she taught me how to fish, how to can my own fruits and vegetables, how to make jellies and jams and how to sew. She also instilled in me the want to serve others. I was right beside her volunteering at the same Blind Center, taking seniors to the store who could not make it on their own or picking up those who needed assistance getting to church on Sunday.
My grandma taught me many things and one lesson in particular that I will never forget. One day she told me we were going for a ride. We jumped in her blue VW Bug and headed down Road 28 ½ towards Avenue 13. We made a series of turns until we ended up on the side of a road next to a field full of strange plants I had never seen before. They grew as far as my eye could see. She instructed me to get out of the car.
As I made my way to her, she took my hand and we walked down rows of these dark green, almost black stems that had these puffy white flowers. But they weren’t flowers. It was cotton. She looked at me and said “Nikki, I brought you here because I want you to know where you come from. Your Great Grandma Herma and Great Great Grandma Annie were hard working, strong women and this was their job. Today you are going to experience what they did. We are going to pick cotton.”
I didn’t flinch. I simply said “Ok Grandma,” as if I didn’t have a care in the world. As we started to pick the fluffy white “flowers”, I kept pricking my fingers from the dried hulls around the cotton. My fingers started to hurt, but I kept going because she felt this was important. We continued for another 15 minutes before she turned to me and asked “have you had enough?” I told her yes as I sucked my fingers trying to stop the pain I had started to feel from doing it “wrong.”
She told me to never forget this day and understand that I had a choice but my ancestors did not.
“You must always remember that as you walk through this life.” She didn’t teach many specifics about black history but she did teach me her story.
It wasn’t until I went to Morgan State University, a Historically Black University in Baltimore (MD), that I learned about Juneteenth. June 19, 1865, Emancipation Day, or Juneteenth, as it came to be known, is the day enslaved African Americans in Texas were told about the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation (jan. 1, 1863). This law affected 4 million Americans and the news took longer than a minute to reach Texas. But slaves were now “free”.
Free is defined as “not under the control or in the power of another; able to act or be done as one wishes; not or no longer confined or imprisoned”. So, imagine how exhausting it must be that 155 years later, African Americans continue to “fight for that freedom” that was given to the last of the enslaved on June 19th (1865).
Fighting to be seen as human, as equal, as American while there are those that feel “what’s the big deal”, “there’s no issue”, “why are they so angry”? The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery were the straws that broke the camel’s back and pulled the scab off wounds that have never been healed, acknowledged or reconciled. The wounds are sore, pricked and bleeding, like my fingers that day with Bessie, and continue to go untreated as we watch another African American lose their life, almost like it is on a continuous loop. It reminds me of our ancestors whose hands were sore and numb and had to go back out to the cotton field and do it all over again.
Freedom, depending on the lens you wear, means many things. The word freedom, a noun, is defined as (1) the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint; (2) the absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government; (3) the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.
After the Civil War, the African American lens attempted to give meaning to freedom by reuniting families separated under slavery, establishing their own churches and schools, seeking economic autonomy, and demanding equal civil and political rights. But this new concept of slaves being free would not be accepted overnight just because it was now law.
Slavery in the United States had been the law for hundreds of years and the undoing of this concept would, as you could imagine, take longer than expected. White opposition to these new freedoms of African Americans was oppressive, violent, and many times lethal in much of the south.
Families who tried to exercise these new freedoms were met with firebombings of homes, businesses, and churches and stealing of land, just to name a few. One of the most notable opposition to African American freedom was the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 in the Greenwood District. The unjust arrest of a young man named Dick Rowland and his alleged inappropriate interaction with a white woman named Sarah Page, in that elevator of the Drexel Building on Third and Main Street, sparked a race massacre that ended in the burning of 35 city blocks of homes, thriving businesses and banks.
The need to keep African Americans in their place, and yet again, move that starting line, has continued to be the practice of this country. Instances like this are what pushed my Grandma and her family to move from Watonga, Oklahoma out west to California to seek a new starting line.
But if history shows us anything, we have always been a resourceful people in spite of the circumstances. We, as many of us have heard, know how to make a way out of no way. With that freedom granted in 1865, it seems that every time we start to catch up as a community, there is always that opposition waiting for the opportunity to remind us that our freedom is conditional. Reminding us that true freedom - for those who have given so much and built this country right alongside other Americans with their labor, blood, sweat, tears, and lives - has never truly come to pass.
The big deal for many African Americans is that even though freedom from slavery was proclaimed, for many, this country has never put that law into action. Never fully made good on its promise, just repackaged slavery into a new improved model and slapped a free label on it. You can walk the streets free but “we” still have the right to ask you for “your [freedom] papers”, question why you are not where you belong, define how successful you can be, grant a few of you the opportunity to become prosperous and judge the others for being inferior because they didn’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But the reality is many African American’s boots did not come with straps. Their straps were cut off and left in a cotton field about 450 years ago.
So when I think about Juneteenth and what it means to me, it’s a look at the history and reality of being an African American in this country. This day is a reminder to celebrate our history and the people who gave us our strength and wisdom but it is also a reminder to keep moving forward. A reminder to continually analyze complex issues regarding race, class, gender and other differences at the personal, interpersonal, cultural and systematic levels - which is the work we dedicate ourselves to at VISIONS.
Although we have gained some victories, we still have the war against racism to win. It’s a reminder for me to celebrate my ancestors, Bessie, Herma, and Annie, and their strength, sacrifices and struggles, and their courage despite the circumstances. And it is also a reminder that we must keep pushing forward in their honor and those who have been taken from us needlessly and know that we will get to freedom eventually. In recent weeks, it is clear we have more walking with us on the journey towards freedom, and it’s clear we will have to pull some people along kicking and screaming, but the fight to actually see progress and action on the part of those who proclaimed these freedoms on June 19th, 1865 will continue.
Nikki Glass is the Director of Finance and Human Resources at VISIONS, Inc.,a non-profit training and consulting organization specializing in diversity and inclusion. She holds a B.S. in Psychology from Morgan State University and studied Industrial and Organizational Psychology at the graduate level at the University of Baltimore. Nikki has served in nonprofits for most of her adult career. Prior to her current role she served as Administrative Manager at a spiritual development center and Deputy Director and Operations Director for a restorative justice nonprofit. She is a certified restorative justice practitioner and has consulted with various juvenile and adult detention facilities in addition to school and juvenile court systems. Nikki is a mother of a young Haitian African American, 12-year-old son and is raising him to be a kind, caring and successful adult who doesn’t have to worry about being judged by the color of his skin.