A year ago, many Americans were unaware of the significance of Juneteenth, but as the country endured a racial reckoning — during which systemic racism became a regular topic of conversation — the holiday quickly gained recognition outside of the Black community. Now, Congress has passed a bill that officially designates Juneteenth as a federal holiday. For many, this may feel like a symbolic win for progress. However, Juneteenth now has the potential to be oversimplified, commercialized, and appropriated. So as we gain this national holiday to honor the enslaved — who survived the unthinkable — let’s remember its importance and do our part not to minimize it.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the date that enslaved people in Galveston, TX, were finally informed that they were free. Within the Black community, and specifically for Black Texans, Juneteenth is a celebratory ritual, symbolic of struggle, triumph, pain, joy, and resilience. “Juneteenth continues to be important, not just because it marks the end of slavery, but because it becomes a ritualized, political holiday that tells and retells the story of Black people’s ongoing struggle in a nation that’s so invested in forgetting,” Jarvis Givens, PhD, a professor and historian, said in an interview with the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
While the recognition of Juneteenth as a national holiday provides an opportunity to have more open and honest conversations about our nation’s history of racial violence and trauma, I’m concerned about the potential commercialization and commodification of this holiday, imagining the ushering in of Juneteenth retail sales using the discount code FREEDOM to get 10 percent off. (Please, no.) Juneteenth is so important to my family and many others who are descendants of the enslaved. So before you risk appropriating this meaningful holiday to the Black community, here are some ways you can respectfully honor it instead.
1. Learn the true meaning of the holiday.
You may have the day off from work or school now, so use that time as an opportunity to learn about the significance of Juneteenth and the impact of chattel enslavement and systemic racism. Holiday celebrations can sometimes give the impression that we’ve overcome the horrors of the past, and it’s important to think critically about slavery and racism and do the internal work within your sphere of influence to make change.
We’ve seen other holidays, such as Memorial Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day, be commodified by capitalism, so let’s commit to keeping the sanctity of Juneteenth, recognizing the past as well as the challenges that continue to delay freedom and justice for Black people in the US.
2. Do not appropriate Black culture.
This is not the time to throw themed parties or experiment with the Black hairstyle you’ve always wanted to try. Our culture is not a costume or something for you to take on and off. Engaging in these acts diminishes the atrocities of enslavement and further contributes to systemic racism. Juneteenth honors the struggle of delayed freedom that my ancestors endured, so do not trivialize their struggle by playing dress up.
3. Do support Black businesses.
The institution of slavery is a direct contributor to the systemic racism we see today, explaining the disproportionate wealth gap in the US. A meaningful way to celebrate the day is to support Black businesses in your local area or national organizations working to uplift and invest in Black entrepreneurs, creatives, children, and the community as a whole.
4. Do the work to fight against systemic racism.
None of us are free until we all are free. With the current assault on voting rights, mass incarceration, inequities within education, a disproportionate generational economic gap, and a proposed ban on teaching honestly about race and racism, it is apparent that we need to have a deeper understanding of our history and, more importantly, of the responsibility we bear in Black liberation.
So do the work to challenge racism within your own sphere of influence and beyond. That means first doing the work with yourself. Get uncomfortable, ask the tough questions, move past the reading lists, and get to work. What are you willing to give up for the benefit of others? Lives have been and continue to be destroyed by the entangled systems of power and oppression. What will be your responsibility in building new systems tethered to justice?
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