It started with a simple question from a friend and colleague of mine at Temple University, where I teach advertising and PR, while heading up diversity, equity and inclusion efforts for the university’s Klein College of Media and Communication.
My colleague 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 a little more than a year ago.
“I don’t necessarily ‘celebrate’ Juneteenth,” I replied, making reference to the fact that getting the delayed notice that the emancipation of enslaved Blacks had been proclaimed years earlier was not necessarily something that I felt inclined to “celebrate.”
She understood, but I apparently hadn’t really listened to her question.
“No,” she clarified. “What can I do to commemorate Juneteenth?”
Implied in her question was, what was I planning to do to acknowledge this observance that might give a clue to someone who is an ally but may not share my lived experience.
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.
Fast forward to last summer when the Biden Administration declared Juneteenth as a federal holiday, I found myself advising institutions big and small about how they might honor June 19— beyond giving employees a day off. Now, on the verge of Juneteenth 2022, we are all still trying to figure things out.
Walmart famously (and justifiably) got slammed on social media when it introduced a “Juneteenth-themed” ice cream brand. I saw reports of white-dominant organizations holding Juneteenth observances with menus replete with stereotyped items like watermelon salad, soul food and “red” Kool-Aid.
The simple truth is that we as Black folks are still undecided and somewhat divided in acknowledging Juneteenth. On the one hand, some traditions date back to the first observance in Galveston, Texas, when that first Freedom Day was established in 1865 —two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863. We’ve since had parades, festivals and more somber activities long before Juneteenth was lifted to national prominence last year.
So, it’s no surprise that missteps continue to happen.
Which poses the question as to whether Juneteenth is something we should commemorate or celebrate?
The complicated answer asks the wrong question. Whether it’s a commemoration or a celebration, the point is how we acknowledge Juneteenth …not if.
The truth is that Juneteenth is as complicated as the circumstances under which this observance was born.
I had participated in Juneteenth observances in the past, but parades and parties have never felt appropriate to me. Last year, I brainstormed with a young mentee who shared my frustration to come up with something we called the “Juneteenth Challenge.” For the month leading up to Juneteenth 2021, we agreed to patronize and promote Black-owned and Black-led businesses and organizations. We set a monetary goal and then challenged others to do likewise.
In the process, we spent thousands of dollars with brothers and sisters, while establishing relationships that continue to last throughout the year.
Of course, this is only one way to honor Juneteenth. The bottom line is that we can find countless ways to give life to the freedom that Juneteenth represents. It also helps us never to forget how precious this hard-fought freedom is. Ironically, the actual Emancipation Proclamation only mentions the word “freedom” three times in the 697-word document. But while freedom in this instance was something that had to be legislated, how we live into that freedom will define the depth of its meaning beyond a simple holiday.
David W. Brown
David W. Brown has owned or managed five advertising/public relations firms throughout his 40+ career in Philadelphia. His most successful venture was BrownPartners, – which operated from 2002 – 2011 – and became one of the most decorated minority-owned ad agencies in the history of Philadelphia’s advertising industry. The company won almost every award in the field including three Pepperpots from the Philadelphia Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA); a Gold Addy from the Philadelphia Advertising Club; and a Mosaic Award from the American Advertising Federation. Brown has the distinction of being the only person to have served over his career as both the President of the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Philadelphia chapter and the Philadelphia Advertising Club. He is also the only living African American inducted into the Philadelphia Public Relations Association (PPRA) Hall of Fame. With the Ad Club’s Movers and Shakers Pinnacle Award, Brown is the only African American to be selected for Hall of Fame honors by both Philadelphia’s largest advertising and public relations organizations. In 2016, he was recipient of PRSA’s National David Ferguson Award for Outstanding Contributions Education and is the first African American to be so honored. He is also the recipient of the 2016 Ofield Dukes Educator Award conferred by the National Black Public Relations Society (NBPRS) recognizing the best African Americans in the public relations industry that are making positive contributions in the community. It was named after the legendary African American practitioner who worked with music icon Stevie Wonder to make Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. Professor Brown is the first Philadelphia practitioner to be selected. He serves as Founder/Managing Director of CommonSoul Communications – a non-profit that provides strategic marketing services to other mission-focused organizations. He was named a “Champion of Change” by the Obama Administration for his communications work around empowering non-profits to make a difference in the communities they serve. In 2018, Brown was recognized for his service to the community in being selected for the Harris Wofford Active Citizenship Award – given to one Philadelphian or organization a year by the Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service Committee which operates the largest single day of service in the country. Brown is the Diversity Advisor to the Office of the Dean at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication where he has pursued level work in the PhD Media and Communication program. An ordained Reverend in the United Methodist Church, Brown is also a frequent contributor to the PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER and WHYY in which he has been featured extensively on a range of urban issues.