Juneteenth, AKA World Free Your Mind Day
Griffin Henry Belk wiped his brow as he looked up at the hot Arkansas sun. That stubborn mule he’s driving (or trying to drive) simply refuses to pull the plow. Finally, the mule decided to move. “Good,” Griffin thought. “Maybe I’ll be able to finish up before sundown.” It wouldn’t matter much, the master would have more work for him to do. Anyway, he spoke too soon; the mule had stopped.
Just then, a white man on horseback approached. The man slowed and Griffin stopped worrying with the mule and turned to the stranger. The saddled man spoke, “You know, you don’t have to plow like that.” Griffin looked at the man with confusion. “You’re free,” he said, “All y’all are free!” Ahh. The words Griffin had always wanted to hear. As the white man rode off, Griffin unleashed the mule and told the mule, “You go your way, and I’ll go mine”. And with that, he and the mule went free.
On this, the 19th of June, I remember, among others, Griffin Henry Belk, my great-great-granddaddy. This day is Juneteenth, my favorite holiday. Juneteenth started in Galveston, Texas in 1865, and is the African American Emancipation Day, commemorating the end of legalized enslavement in the United States. [We recognize, of course, that slavery continues today through the prison industrial complex, human trafficking, standardized wage theft and other, often legal practices.]
My maternal grandmother, Fanilla Suttles Cobb (Griffin’s granddaughter) told this story often, but it was my father, Olly Neal, who pointed out an important fact: not only did Griffin Belk free himself, he freed the mule! He went above the call of duty and took someone (albeit a mule) with him on his road to freedom. On this Juneteenth consider the ways you can take someone with you as you work to improve your life.
On most every Juneteenth, I spend time thinking about what my family would have been like if my great-great-granddaddy Griffin Henry Belk hadn’t walked off that plantation when he did. I expect it would have made a huge difference, because when Griffin Henry Belk left, he was able to travel (searching for his parents), purchase land (160 acres for his family homestead), and generally prepare to provide for his wife, Anna White Belk, and five children to come.
In 2009, I woke up Juneteenth morning and told my daughter about her great-great-great-granddaddy. Even though she was only two at the time, it seemed to resonate with her. But when I wished my husband, a first generation American, a happy Juneteenth, I thought, “How is this holiday — my favorite one — relevant to him?”
Thinking about Griffin Henry Belk made me realize how Juneteenth is relevant to each of us.
Griffin Henry Belk was enslaved, but he didn’t need the Emancipation Proclamation (likely old news by the time he learned about it) to know that he was free. His actions, how he responded to the news of his freedom — immediately walking off the plantation, freeing the mule, and going to search for his parents — suggest he was, in fact, already free. He needed no official Proclamation to free his mind. Neither do we. We too can live our lives striving to be free.
My grandmother grew up celebrating the 19th of June. They would work a only a half day in the cotton fields, then spend the rest of day eating outside, playing and cheering for baseball games, and listening to the singing groups that came by. Similar, but more modern celebrations continue across Arkansas and are growing throughout the country. Whether you attend one or not, you can celebrate by freeing yourself from fear, guilt, anger, worry, shame, jealousy, insecurity, and other people’s issues and expectations.
Since it’s most important to recognize and cultivate your own freedom, in honor of all those everywhere who struggle to be free, I redeclare June 19th World Free Your Mind Day! Now that’s something we can all celebrate with pride!
O happy day!
“Free your mind, and the rest will follow.” — En Vogue, paraphrasing George Clinton of Funkadelic
You can be like Griffin Henry Belk and free someone else as you claim your own freedom.
If you know or suspect that someone is being trafficked, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1 (888) 373–7888. Warning signs include:
- Not being able to leave or come and go as the person pleases.
- Being under 18 and part of the commercial sex trade.
- Working excessively long and/or unusual hours.
- Having high security measures at the work and/or living space.
- Owing a large debt and it unable to pay it off.
- Having few or no personal possessions.
- Having no control of passports, ID, bank account, or other records.