Juneteenth: Building a Foundation of Celebration

Jimmy Warren Commentary

Juneteenth: Building a Foundation of Celebration
A file photo of a woman participating in the Philadelphia Juneteenth Parade in 2019 (Shutterstock)

“The purpose is in the lessons we learnin’ now/Sacrifice personal gain over everything/Just to see the next generation better than ours.”

In his new single, “The Heart Part 5,” poet and Pulitzer Prize-winner Kendrick Lamar beautifully illustrates the importance of applying what we learn today in order to provide a better future for new generations.

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Last year, President Joe Biden officially designated June 19, Juneteenth, as a federal holiday. Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans — specifically the time period when enslaved people in the South received notice that they were free.

I say “received notice” because, while President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, many African Americans didn’t get word of the declaration until June 19, 1865 — two-and-a-half years later.

While new to many, Juneteenth has long been a celebratory time for Blacks in America. It is often observed to celebrate African American culture. But Americans are still learning about Juneteenth and defining the approach to take when celebrating. In that spirit, I’m concerned that Juneteenth will become commercialized like other holidays, and that its purpose — to commemorate the end of slavery — will be pushed to the background.

So what should Juneteenth become, and how should we celebrate it? I have a few ideas that educate and provide an opportunity to empower the Black community.

History and learning: Everyone can do something during Juneteenth regardless of creed, color or identity to learn more about African American culture. While technology affords us opportunities to learn virtually, I suggest Arkansas museums. Curators at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock do an exceptional job of encompassing the story of Black art and culture. A Department of Arkansas Heritage cultural center, the Mosaic Templars is a world-class, nationally accredited museum.

Philanthropy and giving: There are many opportunities to help Black-led groups during Juneteenth. Organizations like the Urban League of Arkansas and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arkansas are examples of nonprofits focused on educating, mentoring and providing advancement for minorities.

Arkansas is also home to four historically Black colleges and universities empowered to educate Black Americans. They are Arkansas Baptist College and Philander Smith College, both of Little Rock; Shorter College of North Little Rock; and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Each of them can benefit from philanthropy and community involvement.

Supporting Black-owned businesses: The pandemic dealt a devastating blow to many Black businesses. Because of COVID-19 and its economic fallout, more than 40% of Black-owned companies had closed as of May 2020, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Black businesses need everyone’s help to survive, and patronizing those companies, large and small, is great for everyone. Diversifying your vendors and supply chain allows you to impact businesses that have been intentionally underrepresented and underfunded.

And when Black Americans are empowered financially, the whole world prospers. According to a 2020 study by the Brookings Institution, Black businesses are underrepresented in the U.S.: While Black people comprise about 14.2% of the population, Black businesses comprise only 2.2% of the 5.7 million businesses that employ more than one person. The study says the shortage of Black businesses “throttles employment and the development of Black communities” and is “costing the U.S. economy millions of jobs and billions of dollars in unrealized revenues.”

Juneteenth has long been celebrated. But now that it’s a federal holiday, it’s critical that we fundamentally understand its importance to everyone’s history. And by focusing on economic advancement within the Black community, everyone can learn, prosper and begin healing the unjustness of the past.

Jimmy D. Warren II is a community engagement officer with The Conductor, an entrepreneurial support organization and public-private partnership between the University of Central Arkansas and Startup Junkie. He’s also a political communication specialist.