Two years ago, many Americans were unaware of the significance of Juneteenth. But as the country underwent a racial reckoning - during which systemic racism became a regular topic of conversation - the holiday quickly gained recognition outside of the Black community. In 2021, in what felt to many like a symbolic win, Congress passed a bill officially designating Juneteenth as a federal holiday. However, Juneteenth now has the potential to be oversimplified, commercialized, and appropriated. So, as we observe this national holiday honoring the enslaved - who survived the unthinkable - let's remember its significance 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. For the Black community, and especially for Black Texans, Juneteenth is a celebratory ritual commemorating 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. Racial injustice and racially motivated attacks on Black people remain all too common, and the May shooting in Buffalo, NY, was a reminder that the US can hardly hold itself up as a paragon of progress.
While the recognition of Juneteenth as a national holiday provides an opportunity to have more open and honest conversations about our country's history of racial violence and trauma, I'm concerned about the potential commercialization and commodification of this holiday. I'm imagining brands jumping into Juneteenth retail sales, offering the discount code FREEDOM for 10 percent off. (Please, no.) Juneteenth is so important to my family and to many others who are descendants of enslaved people. So, here are some ways you can respectfully honor this meaningful Black holiday rather than risking appropriation.
1. Do: Learn the True Meaning of the Holiday
You might have the day off from work or school, 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 the commodification of other holidays, such as Memorial Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so let's commit to preserving the sanctity of Juneteenth to recognize 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. 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 and wealth gap in the US today. A meaningful way to celebrate the day is to support local Black businesses or national organizations working to uplift and invest in Black entrepreneurs, creatives, children, and the community as a whole.
4. Do: Explore Black History, Art, and Culture.
This could be as simple as reading a book by a Black author, watching a film that centers Black joy, listening to music by Black artists, eating at a Black-owned restaurant, or checking out an art exhibit showing work by Black artists. Black culture and accomplishments are often absorbed into the broader US culture without credit or recognition, with white people later popularizing those ideas and co-opting them as their own. Juneteenth is a good time to reverse that cycle and recognize that US culture would not be what it is without the contributions of Black artists and visionaries.
5. Do: Attend Public Juneteenth Events.
Many communities host events, parades, and festivals to recognize the importance of Juneteenth. Ask around at local museums and community centers to see what public events are going on in your area, and look for events that prioritize education and recognition as much as the celebratory side of the holiday.
6. Do Not: Invite Yourself Into Private Traditions.
If you're new to celebrating Juneteenth, now isn't the time to ask your Black friends for an invite to their Juneteenth plans. Understand that this holiday, which might be new to you, has long been an important part of many people's lives. Many people might rightfully feel skeptical about the newfound attention on Juneteenth and want to keep their traditions personal and sacred. So, unless you're explicitly invited, do not co-opt someone else's private celebration. Instead, use this time to educate yourself and give to organizations and businesses that support the Black community.
7. Do: Fight Against Systemic Racism.
None of us are free until all of us are free. With the current assault on voting rights, mass incarceration, inequities within education, a disproportionate generational economic gap, and a proposed ban on schools teaching race and racism honestly, it's clear that we need a deeper understanding of our history and, more importantly, the responsibility we bear in Black liberation.
So, do the work to challenge racism within your own circles and beyond. That means first doing the work with yourself. Get uncomfortable, ask tough questions, move past reading lists, and get to work. What are you willing to give up for others? Lives have been and continue to be destroyed by entangled systems of power and oppression. How will you build new systems tethered to justice?
- Additional reporting by Maggie Ryan