Juneteenth celebrates the news of the Emancipation Proclamation that reached Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865—two and a half years after it was promulgated to free slaves in Confederate territory. June 19, 1866 was the first celebration, initially known as Jubilee Day, that was celebrated by newly freed blacks in Texas, and eventually in black communities across America. I think of the meaning of Juneteenth as my freedom day, and the day of my ancestors.
Now, two years after President Joseph Biden made Juneteenth a national holiday, many brands and people of color are still figuring out how to celebrate the important day, but many are falling into the trap of performative allying (when people and brands claim it) to ally with marginalized people but lacking the intent or follow through to help dismantle white supremacy).
How to honor Juneteenth’s meaning as a true ally of blacks
Just like the rainbow wash that often happens during Pride Month, the Juneteenth wash is an excess of marketing and branding to sell support for Black people’s freedom, without the company actively supporting its Black employees or customers. Take Walmart, for example, which chose to offer its own Juneteenth treat to publicly align with the holiday, rather than provide an opportunity for a black-owned business. Because of today’s history – and the ongoing oppression of black people in this country – this is not okay. Actions and words must match when celebrating Greece.
Fortunately, there are many ways for actual allies to commemorate Juneteenth. Buying lions is one of the best ways to stimulate the black economy – essential to promoting economic justice for our society. As Jay-Z said, “For every one Gucci, I support two FUBU” (For Us Blacks). Be confident that you support premium Black-owned businesses at Target, but also shop directly from Black-owned businesses.
If I, a Black woman, can celebrate the Fourth of July—the day my freedom is not celebrated—any non-Black person can (and should!) celebrate a day that honors me.
I also encourage allies to get directly involved in the holiday, especially if you are privileged enough to have a paid day off from work. Go to a Juneteenth celebration in your area to learn about the history of the holiday and enjoy the true freedom of Americans. Read a book or listen to a podcast about Juneteenth, or meet Opal Lee, the grandmother of Juneteenth (whose tireless calling is why we get a federal holiday today). Don’t make the rookie mistake of assuming this holiday is just a “black thing.” If I, a Black woman, can celebrate the Fourth of July—the day my freedom is not celebrated—any non-Black person can (and should!) celebrate a day that honors me and all other Black people.
If you are white, use Juneteenth as a reminder of the ongoing and urgent need to dismantle white supremacy. Examine the extra power you have and how you benefit from the enslavement of black people in this country – and how you can play a direct role in challenging and overturning the racist systems that keep black people oppressed.
Blacks: Take advantage of this day to celebrate yourselves and your ancestors. Although we sometimes feel like we are still fighting for our humanity, compared to where our ancestors were, we are free. Play your Spotify playlist while you’re grilling. Be in a community with other black people at a parade, concert, or church. Use Juneteenth as a reason to celebrate how far we’ve come and to recharge the distance we have to go.
Continuation of work after Juneteenth
The need to uplift black people and fight our oppression exists beyond Juneteenth. Still, people born black are three times more likely to die from pregnancy complications. We are seeing more police brutality, as they make up 13 percent of the American population but account for 27 percent of deaths by law enforcement. With the history of slavery and abuse we have suffered in this country, the pain of black people is less likely to be secured in health care settings, contributing to health disparities.
The limited freedom we have as Black people is endangered by new and existing state and municipal laws that restrict our voting, eliminate teaching of our history in schools, and limit workplace education about the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. Laws are being developed or enacted to prevent the teaching of the Juneteenth itself.
Domestic politics have never been more important in defining our freedoms than they are now–which is why all allies must vote, even in elections outside of the year to stop the persistent discrimination and unfair treatment we experience as black people in America. And see what your city, county, state, and country are doing to ensure compensation for blacks who have been disadvantaged since July 4, 1776.
Technically, black Americans are no longer enslaved. But this holiday, while an important sign of how far we’ve come, doesn’t erase the oppression we still face—no matter how many Juneteenth collaborators we see on store shelves only diminish the meaning of the day. We deserve more than ice cream. We deserve true freedom.