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What’s the right way to celebrate Juneteenth?

Junteenth is a federal holiday recognized on June 19.
MicroStockHub/Getty Images
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Junteenth is a federal holiday recognized on June 19.

Juneteenth will be celebrated Wednesday. But how should we celebrate it?

Three years ago, President Joe Biden declared Juneteenth a federal holiday following a year in which there was a national reckoning with racism marked by protests over police killings of unarmed Black people.

But, Shaun Harper, Ph.D., says this is a holiday that’s been celebrated for much, much longer than the last few years when most of us learned about it. Harper is a provost professor of education, business and public policy at the University of Southern California. He has written about the missteps and setbacks that have marked the way corporations have celebrated Juneteenth since 2020. The Show spoke with him more about it all — and how we all might celebrate Juneteenth.

Shaun Harper
USC Marshall School of Business
Shaun Harper

Full conversation

SHAUN HARPER: Juneteenth first originated following the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which effectively was intended to end slavery here in the United States. It's just that somehow folks forgot to tell Black people in Galveston, Texas, that they were free. It took 30 months for them to get the news. Once they got that news, as you might imagine, they were quite thrilled to know that they were no longer slaves. Right? So that was the origination of the holiday. And since that time, not just in Galveston, but really in communities all across America, African Americans have gathered annually to celebrate that historic day when folks in Galveston and elsewhere were supposedly free.

LAUREN GILGER: Yeah. Yeah. And and you talk about the idea that this was a holiday before it became a federal holiday, right? Like it was a holiday because the people who celebrated it saw it as a holiday, made it a holiday. Right? Not because of some federal declaration.

HARPER: Yeah. That's right. You know, one of the things that makes Juneteenth especially unique and quite special is that it is the people's holiday. Black folks created this holiday and this annual celebration that really overflows with authentic Black cultural traditions. So, yeah, you're exactly right that this was a holiday long before President Joe Biden declared it so.

GILGER: So I want to also talk about why Juneteenth kind of went mainstream a few years ago. This wasn't kind of because of a collective sense of the need to celebrate black history. It was because of a national reckoning with racism and police violence against Black Americans.

HARPER: Yeah, that’s exactly right. Following the murder of George Floyd, several corporations and educational institutions and the federal government and others were scrambling to figure out a way to right the wrongs of structural and systemic racism. The problem is twofold. The writing of those wrongs lasted for not more than six months. So it was very performative. The other thing is that, you know, many corporations and other institutions made these commitments to advance racial justice, and they did so in the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. But they never fulfilled those commitments. So one of the things that I will applaud President Joe Biden for doing is making Juneteenth a federal holiday, a national holiday. That made it not so performative. Right? That there just all of these other performative actions that were happening elsewhere.

GILGER: OK. So let's talk about what that looked like, right? Like how did corporate culture kind of initially respond to this recognition of Juneteenth and, and want to do something?

HARPER: Yeah, they responded in quite a silly way. There was nothing about it that was laughable. But it was it was really silly. Walmart, for example, rolled out a Juneteenth edition ice cream. Black people didn't ask for that. Walmart also created this product line of all sorts of Juneteenth paper products and banners and all sorts of other ridiculous things. You know, what was so problematic about that, not just in Walmart but in other places that were corporatizing the holiday, is that those things were the antithesis of what an authentic, long-standing Juneteenth celebration actually is, was and continues to be. You know, when you go to a Juneteenth celebration and I, I'm 48 years old, I've been to at least 20 Juneteenth celebrations over, over the course of my life. You know, there's drumming, there are powerful tributes to ancestors and elders who paved the way for future generations, there's authentic soul food. It just overflows with what feels like such authentic Black culture. So the corporatization of it all really just stripped the cultural beauty of what Juneteenth always has been.

GILGER: So, I mean, let's talk about that more a little bit about the the kind of the “right way” to celebrate this. Right? Like there's a corporate level to this and how companies maybe should respond and recognize this holiday for their employees. And then there's also the kind of how the rest of us might respect and honor this holiday, right?

HARPER: Right. Well, I have a couple ideas. Many of these corporations have too few Black employees notwithstanding. They have Black employees, at least some. They should start by engaging their Black employees and their Black employee resource groups to invite the feedback and their input on what an authentic celebration of Juneteenth can and should look like for the business. They should also ask their clients and Black people in their communities, hey, our company wants to show up in the best and most appropriate and most respectful way on Juneteenth. What advice do you have for us? if you ask the people, they will tell you

GILGER: What about for those who didn't know about this before, for those who are not part of this community. Are there ways in which we can honor and respect this holiday?

HARPER: Yeah, I'm a professor, so I am a big proponent of assigning things to people to read. You know, there have been so many really great histories written of Juneteenth book long histories, as well as short articles, that folks can read to get a sense of, not only the origins, but also the evolution of this holiday and the ways that it has been celebrated over time in communities all across America. So I think folks should first start by reading. There is also a thing that happens in many communities across the country on Martin Luther King Day, where people commit themselves to a day of service, you know, doing some act of service in pursuit of social justice in the name of Martin Luther King. I think that committing oneself to doing something really meaningful on Juneteenth is another way that folks can authentically show up. It doesn't necessarily have to be doing service in a Black community. It could be that one commits oneself to reading or engaging with, you know, Black friends of theirs, Black coworkers of theirs, and so on to try to better understand, the cultural significance of the holiday on that holiday. But whatever it is, I think it should become an annual day of commitment for both individuals and for corporations and other organizations.

GILGER: Yeah, that is Doctor Shaun Harper, provost professor of education, business and public policy at the University of Southern California. Doctor Harper, thank you so much for coming on. Thanks for telling us about this, for educating us, I appreciate it.

HARPER: Thanks so much for having me.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.
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