Y'all know we like to invite everybody to the cookout. It’s one of Black people's love languages, and we’re not stingy with our love. But whether everyone should be at the cookout is an entirely different question.
Nonetheless, with our beloved Juneteenth’s recent rise to national fame, the cookout invitation list may no longer be in our control. Juneteenth has gone from local neighborhood parades and BBQs all the way to The White House. America at large is now learning about, celebrating, and participating in Juneteenth. Whether we like it or not, all eyes are now on the once little-known holiday that was barely recognized outside of the Black community. And while Juneteenth will always be a celebration, it also has a deep history, so there’s merit in concerns about its widespread celebration.
The holiday commemorates the day in 1865 that more than 250,000 enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Texas, learned that they were free when Union troops arrived with the news. And although the Emancipation Proclamation was signed two years earlier, we have come to celebrate the later date in a unified nod to the notion that until all of us are free, none of us are free.
That type of history deserves a thoughtful, reverent approach to its celebration.
All this newfound attention begs the question: just how should we celebrate Juneteenth as a nation? Are we comfortable with other cultures hijacking the celebration and turning it into something like Cinco de Mayo? Is turning up even the point, or should we focus on something deeper? And if we decide that a little turn up ain’t never hurt nobody, are there limits on how other cultures should turn up, out of respect? How should national and local businesses treat the holiday?
In the coming years, the national culture around Juneteenth will take on a more definitive shape regarding how we celebrate, who celebrates, and how businesses and national brands treat the holiday. Collectively, we are on the precipice of cementing what’s acceptable, expected, and encouraged for the celebration of Juneteenth. Since 2020, more than half of U.S. states have legally recognized Juneteenth as a national holiday. That’s a lot of new folks at the cookout. Pausing to reflect on how we want this celebration to look and feel is worth some consideration.
Twitter discussions surrounding the celebration of Juneteenth focus on concerns about other cultures ‘Cinco de Mayo-ing’ Juneteenth—essentially a commercialization of the celebratory nature of the holiday to attract participants that don’t necessarily care about the meaning behind the holiday.
In years past, the Black community celebrated the holiday with parades and neighborhood or community celebrations along with cookouts. A mix of reflection and jubilation. It is a tone that we should continue to reach for as the holiday becomes more widely celebrated. But as Walmart learned last year, you can’t just jump into the double dutch rope if you don’t know how to jump!
So, what’s an appropriate level of participation for non-Black communities? Quiet as it’s kept, the White House’s celebration of this year’s Juneteenth holiday actually struck a nice tone with its balance of historical reflection in speeches from important figures like ninety-six-year-old activist, Ms. Opal Lee, and beautiful performances of resilience from Black singers and performers, including Jennifer Hudson and HBCU bands and choirs.
Most importantly, the celebration was led by authentic Black voices including Method Man and even Vice President Harris. When celebrating such an important milestone like the end of American slavery, there is a need for Black voices to tell those stories. There is a historical grief that exists surrounding slavery that will likely never go away, and delicacy is always needed when addressing this topic. So, when we dive into the question of how other cultures celebrate or turn up for the holiday, that sensitivity must be present. There must be acknowledgement that for some holidays, you are a guest at another’s party.
The most salient advice for non-Black communities seeking to participate in Juneteenth would be to focus on authenticity. Cultivate an authentic desire to be respectful to the history of the holiday, and don’t show up to the conversation until that authenticity is present. Additionally, understand that this is a celebration, but your involvement in the celebration is complicated for some, so be respectful, and don’t turn up like it’s St. Patty’s Day. Juneteenth is about the end of a horrific period for Black people in America. Don’t be tone deaf to that fact.
Businesses and institutions acknowledging or celebrating Juneteenth should also have that same authenticity and awareness coupled with tact and deference to the voices of the Black community—this means bringing a variety of Black people to the table when planning Juneteenth acknowledgments and celebrations. The variety is important because as one South Carolina town showed, the Black community is not a monolith. And finally, if you’re engaging with the Juneteenth holiday for monetary reasons—just don’t.
The celebration of Juneteenth is one of those holidays that deserves our nuanced approach. It’s not just about celebration. It’s also about triumph and the end of bondage. So, for all who get an invite to the Juneteenth cookout, or even just a plate, please just act like you know. Black people have enough to deal with already.