I have today off. Reason being? It’s Juneteenth. The difference between my company, Bandwagon, having the day off and the treasure trove of companies granting the day off is also inherent in the work.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder last summer, a lot of companies started to grant Juneteenth off as a holiday, but did they educate their employees on what it means? Do they know why it is significant, why there should be a day off? All signs point to no.
Let me help you. Juneteenth is a day of celebration and remembrance. It isn’t just another summer Friday to have a cookout. Juneteenth is a combination of the words June and nineteenth, to commemorate the day in 1865 that Major General Gordon read the Emancipation Proclamation to an enslaved community in Galveston, Texas, letting them know President Lincoln had freed enslaved African Americans in rebel states.
Now, let’s recall that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as effective on January 1, 1863, but most enslavers, who had the task of telling the enslaved they were free, disregarded the order until Union troops arrived to enforce it. Juneteenth is celebrated because, at two and a half years late, Texas was the last Confederate state to have the proclamation announced and the enslaved freed. For that reason, it’s also known as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day.
Some people are doing a good job of raising awareness around the holiday and what it means. Facebook has a partnership with Tina Knowles-Lawson, the mother of powerhouses Beyoncé and Solange, to discuss the holiday. She has good timing. This week, the House passed a bill to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday, and put it on President Biden’s desk in time to celebrate this year, marking the first new federal holiday since President Reagan signed Martin Luther King Jr. Day into law in 1983.
Says BandwagonFanClub founder Harold Hughes (who gave me the day off), “While the creation and meaning of holidays is often viewed with reverence, modern-day practice and observance of holidays—especially cultural ones—can feel commercialized and performative. With this historic announcement of Juneteenth being recognized, I encourage my team to educate themselves while also finding ways to support the community members that this holiday highlights.”
To Harold’s point, while there is much to applaud about this legislation passing, what people don’t want to see is the corporatization of the date, with companies effectively co-opting the holiday through performative acts, making pledges of solidarity and promises of funding and philanthropy with no metrics or updates on the eventual results.
We don’t need Juneteenth to turn into what brands have now turned Pride Month into: rainbow-washing corporate logos while keeping their C-suites homogeneous.
Companies would be better served by putting Juneteenth into proper context—understanding that, while June 19, 1865, signaled the last of the enslaved being told they were free, if this fact isn’t cross-referenced with mentions of today’s police brutality or discussion around American institutions that still support mass incarceration and use it as a source of cheap labor, then just having a day off and brands changing their Twitter avatars is not really serving Black people.
Symbolism does not free anyone.”
Symbolism does not free anyone. What would serve Black folks is for these same companies granting days off to also put funding toward lobbying for legislation that ensures the protection of voting rights and reforms policing. That, and actually promoting and properly paying their Black employees.
Days off are nice, but so is a raise, and so is being able to bird-watch in a park, or BBQ in peace, or simply breathe without having a knee on your neck.
Last summer, George Floyd’s murder sparked the promises, pledges, and protests that led to companies granting Juneteenth as a day off. The best way to honor him, and the holiday, is to actually do something that is actionable and has tangible, visible results. Plainly put, as my grandmother used to remind me, “Faith without works is dead.”
Bärí A. Williams is COO at BandWagonFanClub, Inc., and a DEI consultant in tech. She previously served as head of business operations, North America, for StubHub, and lead counsel for Facebook, where she created its Supplier Diversity program. Follow her on Twitter at @BariAWilliams.