The month of June marks several important observances that celebrate the contributions of Black Americans and honor the ongoing fight for the promise of freedom. African American Music Appreciation Month, Black Lives Matter Month, Caribbean American Heritage Month and Juneteenth are all observed within this month, and each helps to spotlight the resilience, creativity and profound impact of Black people and culture in America. While there is no mistaking that the history which led us to these celebrations is dark and shameful, we often find a renewed sense of hope when we celebrate progress together.
American history is about us - all of us. So, as we prepare to celebrate Juneteenth, it is critical that we honor its historical significance for Black people while also using this moment as an opportunity to educate one another on how to become better allies.
With its roots dating back to 1865, Juneteenth is not a new holiday. Yet it recently gained broader public recognition after widespread celebrations reemerged as a symbol of liberation during the movement for racial justice in response to the murder of George Floyd. Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021, bringing America’s “Second Independence Day” to center stage.
The true spirit of Juneteenth is, and has always been, one of joy and community. For more than 150 years, Black people have gathered to commemorate triumph over the brutality of slavery by sharing meals, music and meaningful discourse about unity and hope. Even today, Juneteenth is often celebrated in neighborhoods as a block party or cookout. Public celebrations and festivals of many kinds are held in towns and cities across the U.S.
Now as its popularity grows, companies are trying to find their place in the conversations, making the holiday a target for commercialization. We’ve already seen a few very public missteps this year, opening the floor for discussions about the threat that appropriation poses to Black voices, businesses and history. Black people have made their feelings clear about Juneteenth-branded novelties and other tone-deaf consumer items – “We didn’t ask for this.” While some products may be less offensive than others and ultimately better received, the damage is still felt in many cases by Black businesses who are undercut by large retailers.
America’s urge to commercialize is bigger than Juneteenth. We see similar debates around the appropriation of Pride month each June – particularly in recent years, as the rainbow “branding” of Pride has proliferated to every corner of the consumer marketplace. In this time of reflection, we must prioritize moving beyond what “sells” and address the actual ongoing fight for freedom and equity. There is undoubtedly space for us all to celebrate responsibly through words, action and most importantly, change.
Change is ultimately what folks are asking for and what is required to support a society that lives up to its promise as Land of the Free. Whether at work, home or school, we all thrive when we can show up as our true, authentic selves. But even now in 2022, this freedom is a privilege that many people of color don’t have. The vestiges of slavery still show up in restrictive legislation that polices Black bodies or restricts Black votes, serving as sobering reminders of the conditional nature of what we call freedom today.
For Juneteenth, we celebrate together, despite the struggle. We find joy in the hope of what’s to come because we know where we’ve been. The story of Juneteenth is the story of the fight for basic human rights, and at its core underscores the importance of allyship and empathy. As we consider our individual and collective contributions, and as we celebrate within our own community here at G&S, remember that we can activate change wherever we are by listening to the needs of others and building safe and brave spaces to challenge policies, attitudes and systems built on racism.