Juneteenth has officially gone from a cultural and regional tradition for Black Americans to a federal holiday, with a day off work for everyone.
I admit I have mixed feelings about this development.
On the one hand, the official abolition of slavery is worthy of a place in the calendar. And not just for African Americans. We all should be marking this profound and hard-won change in the United States. It’s fitting to observe the moment when “all men are created equal” became more true in our law, just a few weeks before the country shuts down to honor the Declaration of Independence.
And yet, because of the brutal history that bridges those two holidays, I’m uncomfortable with celebrating them in the same way we celebrate most holidays.
We seem to turn federal holidays into advertising campaigns, don’t we? Tributes to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln somehow ended up as people in tricorn hats selling cars. Amazon is full of merchandise ready to capitalize on Juneteenth. We’ve already seen an ice cream flavor for it.
But I don’t want this day to become a sale.
Celebrations are great—gathering with friends and loved ones for food and community is always good.
But Juneteenth also an opportunity for reflection. What does freedom mean to you? What is your role, and your family’s role, in the legacy of slavery? How does it continue to shape where you live, your opportunities, our culture?
Organizations can ask these questions too. Some of our clients are offering events this week, often with a guest speaker, to give employees some background and a space to learn and discuss. The holiday can be a powerful part of your DEI strategy: you can’t make system-wide changes without individual awareness and growth.
If your organization is doing something like that, great. If not, Ella F. Washington and Jasmine Sanders in the Harvard Business Review have some great suggestions:
Sponsor visits to a Black/African-American museum, site, or cultural center in your area
Provide a list of Black businesses to patronize along with local community celebrations of the holiday
Announce increased investments in your DEI initiatives
Ultimately, learning about slavery and freedom in American history is one of the most appropriate ways to observe Juneteenth. Pick up a history book (or bring one to your book club)—I’ve always loved the works of John Hope Franklin (From Slavery to Freedom), and the newer classics are must-reads: The Warmth of Other Suns, 1619, Caste. Swap out your Netflix binging with some movies (fiction or documentary), like Selma, Hidden Figures, Civil War (Or, Who Do We Think We Are), or Becoming.
So what are you doing with your Juneteenth? The traditions we start now will help keep this holiday more about being reflective than about being profitable.