Today is Juneteenth, a day to commemorate the effective end of slavery in the United States. You might have the day off work today since Juneteenth was declared a national holiday two years ago – but like many Americans, you might not understand why this holiday is so important. I wanted to write something short and quick about the holiday, but recent experiences and conversations have taught me just how many people have been misunderstanding or misrepresenting Black history in their treatment of Juneteenth. The good news is that there are concrete steps you (and your organization) can take to help support people who want to learn more about Juneteenth. There are so many reasons to learn more, but here are my top 3:
1. Not enough people know what Juneteenth is (or have a proper background on Black history)
More than 60% of Americans know little to nothing about Juneteenth, even though it is a national holiday. If you happen to be one of those people, that’s okay! Here’s a helpful summary of the history of Juneteenth. I suggest that you read it before you wish someone a “Happy Juneteenth” as that’s not what this holiday is all about.
One of the reasons people don’t know about Juneteenth is that Black history is often not adequately covered in schools, an increasing problem these days. A 2022 poll revealed that two-thirds of Americans feel their education didn’t contain enough information about Black history. In many recent conversations with younger adults, I have been surprised by how misinformed or underinformed they were about Black history. This does them such a disservice because knowing Black history really puts things into perspective. It’s important for people to know about Juneteenth because it provides an opportunity to reflect on the work we all still have to do to unpack the long history of racial inequality in the United States.
2. Black history isn’t just about slavery – it’s also about Black joy and excellence!
I’ll tell you a story that perfectly illustrates this example. When I was a kid, my mom sent me to a summer school that was community-run with a strong focus on Black history. I didn’t want to go but like most moms, my mom wanted me off the streets and doing something engaging. At the time, I didn’t know much about Black history – I knew about slavery, obviously, but I had no idea about all these illustrious Black authors (we read Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin) and cultural contributions of Black folks. I didn’t learn any of those things from history books. One of the most powerful memories I have from that summer was going to Detroit to see some “important Black activist” speak. Guess who it was? Nelson Mandela.
I know now that the experience I got to have to learn about Black history as a kid was rare. It’s doubly important for adults to learn more about the Black experience beyond just slavery, especially if you’re not a Black person. If you want to become a better below the surface leader, it’s vital to know this stuff. Think about it like learning about different cultures: if you work for a Global company, you make a point to learn about the folks you’ll be interacting with from other countries. The same is true for people from different cultural and racial backgrounds. Also, if you understand everything that Black people have been through, you gain a much better perspective on why your company’s diversity leadership program or corporate sponsorship program is that much more important.
3. People want to learn more, but resources are slowly being erased.
This is very concerning, especially when I see firsthand how people are misinformed or underinformed. I’ve had several experiences this month where I’ve encountered well-intentioned professionals and leaders who have had to confront that they were ignorant about the history of colonialism, slavery, and Juneteenth – and that ignorance caused them to make mistakes or even block them from seeing the full picture. Across the board, these folks were very apologetic, and wanted to learn more and do better going forward. Some even told me that’s “how they were taught.”
We can’t rely on schools to give people the background they need to be well-informed about Black history. Case-in-point: a friend of mine recently shared this Washington Post article that says in some states, teachers don’t even have to admit that slavery was wrong. This makes me think that there’s an opportunity here for HR professionals and those in charge of corporate learning and development to provide resources to help folks learn more about Juneteenth and Black history. If you are an HR or a leadership development professional, start asking questions about how to integrate material about Juneteenth into your ongoing learning work! Honestly, you don’t even need to be in one of those professions. Ask if you can influence any type of L&D – even as an ERG member, leader, or even regular employee! There’s always something you can do, and it will always be worth it.