On Juneteenth, let’s pass the baton to the next generation

In life as in sports, recognize those who have overcome, those still striving and those yet unborn


By Jeff Rivers, The Undefeated

This time of year, black people all over America come together to celebrate Juneteenth: June 19, 1865. That was the day black slaves in Galveston, Texas, were told the Union had held. The South had been beaten. The Civil War had ended.

And they were free.

In some of my earlier Juneteenth celebrations, a red soda salute was raised to toast black people who’d advanced the race or done other noteworthy things, often against the odds.

Kendall Ellis deserves a red-soda salute. Earlier this month, the 22-year-old University of Southern California runner ran the anchor leg of the 4×400 relay at the NCAA track and field championships. After a bobbled exchange of the baton, she surged into third place in the event, far behind. And although she couldn’t hear it, Dwight Stones spoke for many when he said while calling the race on TV that there was no way she could win.

But the Florida native made a way out of no way. Fast, powerful and determined, she ran as what poet Sterling Brown might have called a strong woman who kept coming. She kept coming through the rain. She kept running through the puddles. She kept coming until she crossed the finish line first, triumphant and spent. She dropped her blue baton into a white basket. She dropped to her knees. Her victory had led USC to the Division I team title.

Ellis had won an actual relay, and she had continued a figurative and metaphorical one: Besides taking the baton from her teammates, she’d also taken the baton from other black female track stars such as Wilma Rudolph, who won three gold medals at the 1960 Olympics.

On Tuesday, when I raise my glass to Ellis, I will also be toasting Rudolph, Wyomia Tyus and Florence Griffith Joyner, all past champions in relay races. Similarly, when I raise my glass to Jesmyn Ward, the only woman to win the National Book Award twice, with Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing, I will be toasting Phillis Wheatley, Gwendolyn Brooks and Toni Morrison too.

And when I take a sweet sip of strawberry soda and hail the Golden State Warriors for winning their third NBA championship in four years, I’ll also be saluting the New York Renaissance (Rens) and the Harlem Globetrotters: At their best, the aptly nicknamed Warriors meld the skill and teamwork of the Rens of the 1920s and the crowd-pleasing displays of the Globetrotters of the 1960s.

To my way of thinking, Juneteenth places America on the backstretch of an annual freedom run and observance that ends on Independence Day.

This is a time to salute our heroes from popular culture, including LeBron James. The Cleveland Cavaliers forward firmly grips the baton of the greatest NBA basketball player of his era, a baton previously held by Michael Jordan and others. But after a monumental 2017-18 season, James also holds the baton once held by the mythical and legendary John Henry, a steel-driving man who battled the power of the machine.

This is the time to celebrate Kendrick Lamar, the Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper, who grasped the baton from Wynton Marsalis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz and classical musician who took the baton from Duke Ellington, who would have won the Pulitzer Prize but his greatness arrived before America was ready to completely embrace it.

This is also a time to celebrate the unnamed and the unsung, including those who fled slavery and those who endured its horrors. It’s time to honor today’s little people. They make it possible for the heroes and stars to do big things in the arts, in sports and in the marathon run for social justice.

And it’s time to get ready. At any time, Fate, Responsibility and Progress can thrust a baton in our hands. One never knows if we are to run what looks like an anchor leg of an ancient marathon or the first leg of a race that takes the nation in a new and unforeseen direction. With purpose, resolve and resilience, all roads can lead to freedom.

Happy Juneteenth.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.

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