It started with a simple question from a friend and colleague of mine at Temple University.
She identifies as white and female. She’s also someone with whom I’ve shared many discussions about race — before George Floyd, during the racial reckoning, and it seems every day since. So it wasn’t a surprise that she would ask me a question about “celebrating” Juneteenth.
“I don’t necessarily ‘celebrate’ Juneteenth,” I replied, making reference to the fact that the delayed notice that the emancipation of enslaved Black people had been proclaimed months earlier was not necessarily something that I felt inclined to “celebrate.”
She understood, but I apparently hadn’t really listened to her question.
“No. What can I do to commemorate Juneteenth?”
Implied in her question was, “What was I planning to do to acknowledge this observance?”
As a Black man and lifelong Philadelphian, the question hit me hard. In May 2020, we had just witnessed the public murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. Less than a week later, I was leading a silent prayer protesting this tragedy. I’ve been literally wearing my Black Lives Matter messages on my sleeves — on my jacket lapel, wristband, and in my actions, loudly and proudly.
Yet, I had no response or recommendation for lifting the importance of Juneteenth in this moment of reflection and beyond. In the times of COVID, there were still an array of pandemic-friendly events so I sent my colleague some links, but was as unsatisfied with my response as she probably was receiving it.
I had participated in Juneteenth observances in the past, but parades and parties just didn’t seem to fit this particular moment in time. It wasn’t until several months later when a young brother who I’ve mentored over the years came to me with the same frustration.
After a couple of rounds of brainstorming, we came up with something we were calling the “Juneteenth Challenge.” Simply, we would take the month leading up to Juneteenth 2021 to patronize and promote Black-owned and Black-led businesses and organizations. We would each set a monetary goal and then challenge others in our respective social media outlets to do likewise.
So, on May 19 of this year, we started the first-ever #JuneteenthChallenge. All of us mapped out some 30+ entities that we would support — a different one each day — leading up and through June 19, 2021.
Our intent was to help recycle the dollars that too quickly leave the Black community as compared to other ethnic groups. We also intended to give exposure to those Black businesses and organizations that have supported our communities despite the double pandemic caused by the virus and racial violence. Finally, we wanted to move with resolve to deliberately seek Black-owned and focused efforts as a daily act of support in everything that we would do leading up to Juneteenth.
And we learned so much in the process.
First, we discovered the resilience and creativity of so many of our Black-owned businesses around the world. No doubt that many have had to close due to the pandemics, but many others have found their footing and will continue to thrive as the economy picks up steam.
Secondly, it wasn’t hard to find a Black-owned or Black-led entity… if you’re committed to doing so. We found Black-owned coffee companies to start our day and Black-owned wineries to bring tougher days to a smoother end.
We found leisure time purchasing from Black-owned bookstores that enabled us to read Black literature while smoking stogies from Black-owned cigar companies. We found Black-owned eateries, Black-owned health care orgs, Black-owned therapy providers and everything in between.
Last, we found that there are a countless number of ways to “celebrate” the freedom that Juneteenth represents. However, taking on this challenge has also helped us to never forget how precious this hard-fought freedom is… and in the volatile times in which we live, we have a responsibility to constantly breathe life and meaning into that freedom.
There’s a quote from Dr. King that says, “Freedom has always been an expensive thing.” Knowing that there’s no price too high for the freedoms we fight for is all the motivation needed to embrace this challenge every minute of every day.
David W. Brown is the Diversity Advisor to the Office of the Dean of Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University.
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