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Juneteenth Is Coming - How to Do It Right!

Author: Sarah Morgan, Director, Equity and Inclusion

Juneteenth is the holiday that commemorates the day that the final group of enslaved Black people in America were notified of their freedom after the Civil War. While the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, it took over 2 years for the confederacy to finally surrender and an additional 3-6 months for the union to travel across the country to notify all the enslaved Black people in America of their new freed status.

The final notification occurred on June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas. The combination of the month (June) and the day (nineteenth) is where the naming of the holiday came from. Juneteenth has been celebrated annually since then, mostly in the state of Texas and by Black American communities across the US. In recent years, these celebrations have grown and become more popular to include large, citywide events in major metropolitan areas like Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles.

In 2021, Juneteenth became the 13th Federal Holiday in the US. Several states, cities, and municipalities followed suit by declaring the holiday at those levels and vowing to close their offices to honor the day. Many private organizations then adopted the holiday into their calendar as well, beginning in 2022.

As we approach the holiday for 2022, reports are already starting of companies making a mess and mockery of their first attempts at celebrating Juneteenth. Because it is a holiday with roots in a difficult part of American history and a very specific marginalized group within our society, companies aren’t sure what to do – and the actions taken so far look more like performative allyship than sincere inclusion.

With about 3 weeks to go before Juneteenth, it’s not too late to re-evaluate your company’s plans and avoid potential mishaps. Here are some things to consider as you finalize your company’s Juneteenth plans:

  • It’s ok to do and/or say nothing. If your organization has declared Juneteenth a holiday and will close your operations to honor it, you don’t have to do anything more. Most organizations don’t make major announcements for holidays beyond the date the offices will be closed and how the closure will impact deadlines relating to payroll. You do not have to treat Juneteenth differently just because of its historical origins.
  • It’s ok to acknowledge the dissonance. There is something strange and a little unsettling about “celebrating” the delayed freedom of a people who never should have been enslaved. There is something strange and unsettling about non-Black Americans reaping the benefit of paid time off for the freedom of a people that their ancestors likely participated in, advocated for, and benefitted from keeping enslaved. There is something strange and unsettling about celebrating Black American “freedom” when Black Americans still face so much hardship and struggle from supremacy and systemic oppression … Yet here we are. Acknowledging the discomfort of this celebration does not diminish the occasion; it adds to it. By confronting what is strange and unsettling during our celebrations, we can begin to fully heal the discomfort and move forward toward a better future in both peace and power.
  • It’s ok to honor but not celebrate. Juneteenth isn’t like Valentine’s Day or Halloween. It is not a holiday where you throw together some themed decorations and have a party. It is a very specific cultural memorial celebration. Before planning or buying anything for a company sponsored event, make sure that you’ve thoroughly vetted the ideas, the speakers, the purchases, etc to ensure it is not offensive or diminishing to the significance of the day. Make sure your choices honor and memorialize the event more than party and celebrate the day.
  • It’s ok to express the insufficiency. One day off over 150 years later does not even come close to repairing all that still needs to be fixed surrounding the oppression of Black Americans. One day off does not help all the other marginalized groups in the US or around the world. One day off does not create equality or equity. One day off is insufficient – but it still matters. And we should still take the day. And we should enjoy ourselves as we honor those we lost and those who survived the atrocities of slavery. It is ok to pause and honor that for a moment, knowing that we must get back to the important work of fully eradicating the lingering remnants of slavery and supremacy the very next day.

Juneteenth is a new national holiday unlike any we’ve celebrated before. It’s ok that finding the “right” and deepest way to honor and celebrate as a nation, as a community, and as a company will take some time. However, because of the cultural sensitivity surrounding Juneteenth, the space for trial and error is very narrow.

As you finalize the plans for your celebrations, be thoughtful, considerate, and intentional about how and what you do.

Happy Juneteenth!

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