There was also a delay after President Abraham Lincoln’s issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Southern secessionist states had gotten the memo but until Union troops showed up just chose to ignore it. Alignment was eventually attained and as early as 1866 people were celebrating freedom—a word we’re sorely tempted to put in quotes.
While the holiday has gotten enough traction over the intervening years to be considered “the longest-running African American holiday” (according to the Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History), or maybe more significantly as a second Independence Day, attempts to recognize it correctly have been bungled.
Witness Walmart’s Juneteenth-themed ice cream imbroglio.
Neither requested or required, this Juneteenth ice cream arose from Walmart executives who thought what people wanted and needed to celebrate the end of slavery was ice cream.
Even in the 1960s—60 years earlier than the ice cream gambit—movements were afoot to observe Juneteenth not with celebrations but with a focus on civil rights and desegregation. In 2022, we are having healthy and much-needed discussions on how much and how significant this holiday is from a corporate sense.
Are corporations able to observe an existing Juneteenth holiday tradition? I—along with my mother, father, sisters, my children and neighbors in Brooklyn and now California—would like it noted that we have had no tradition to share. Blacks are too busy trying to deal with the ways in which freedom might exist for us without quotation marks during traffic stops, promotions and real estate transactions.
In any event, does it make sense for a company to observe the holiday other than by increasing workplace diversity all along the org chart? Develop—in earnest and not for performative reasons—real career paths once you’ve increased that diversity? Stopping the ham-handed othering that happens when your workplace is not diverse enough to make it something that happens less?
Coming on the heels of George Floyd’s murder, the Juneteenth holiday is nonetheless a nice way for America to say, “Yes, we tricked you once but finally the good have made right this evil wrong.”
Maybe someday it will even be true. Until then? From the corporate side of things, a brief note, done in consultation with whatever people of color you do have on your staff, and then? Just keep things moving along. It’ll make us all feel a whole lot better.
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