As we commemorate Juneteenth on Friday, June 19, it’s impossible to not reflect on the history of this country and where we are today. Historically, America has refused to recognize Juneteenth as a national paid holiday. But the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black people have sparked sudden action, and this year both businesses like Nike, Google, and Target and governments like the Commonwealth of Virginia, will recognize Juneteenth.
In our everyday lives, whether consciously realize or not, we encounter symbols of the reality of Black lives in America. Symbols that remind Black people of how far we have come and how far we still have to go — whether that’s a flag, the lone Black person on your board or leadership team to show diversity or even recognizing Juneteenth as a national paid holiday. We have these symbols that show support, equality, and justice, and, while meaning well, we must ask how they directly impact the lives of Black people. We cannot confuse symbolism with actual systemic change. Yes, this is an important step in the right direction, but a step that should be followed with structural change in pay, leadership and policy.
Juneteenth must be celebrated. This day represents the end of the brutal system which we know as slavery in America. However, while celebrating an end of one brutal system, we must not lose sight of other forms of oppression that continue today. Black Americans are free from physical shackles and chains and are no longer considered property in the eyes of the law, but slavery is still alive today in America. From our racist cradle to prison pipeline, to our segregated schools, to hateful rhetoric from our most powerful leaders—you cannot look at our nation today without recognizing that Black people are not yet truly free.
I reflect on my own experiences as a Black man in America. Yes, I was able to go to college. I’m paid for my work. I’m able to marry whoever I want. I can go into any building I want. These are all things I am thankful for—even though I recognize my white colleagues and friends probably rarely think about these things as privileges.
But I want more for myself and my community. I want Black people to be able to walk down a street and not be harassed or even killed because of the color of their skin. I want Black people to go to work and feel like what they say matters and not have to worry that their ideas will be dismissed because they are Black. I want Black parents to not have to worry about where their children go, for fear of somebody else’s actions.
Every day must be a celebration of life for Black people. America should celebrate Black life and Black freedom not once or twice every 365 days, but every day. Every day we must protect Black people, not because of fear of backlash or because it is temporarily trendy, but because this country was built by Black people, and the future of our nation depends on the lives of Black people.
To my Black people, celebrate through resistance. We’ve been here before and we know what to do. Just like everything else we’ve experienced, we’ve always found a way to make it through. On Juneteenth, celebrate the progress our people have made but use that same energy to continue to fight and hold government, corporations, your coworkers, your friends, and all people accountable for their actions.
To my white people, educate yourself. Not just by reading a book or an article but by listening to the lived experiences of Black people. Show up, speak up, and stand in solidarity with Black people not because it’s trending, but because every privilege you’ve experienced in life has been at the expense of Black lives. Show up and speak out not only in the streets but also in the workplace. Black lives have to matter to you the way water matters to our bodies and oxygen matters to our lungs, because this country wouldn’t be what it is or where it is today without Black people.
Take action to proclaim Black Lives Matter this Friday, June 19 and through the weekend by joining the Movement for Black Lives. Find out how you can take action to join digitally or in the streets to #DefendBlackLives here.