Yes, Juneteenth Should Be a Work Holiday — But For the Right Reasons
Annual Juneteenth parade takes new route in West Philadelphia, 2019. Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

Yes, Juneteenth Should Be a Work Holiday — But For the Right Reasons

A day off is great, but after…

When Jack Dorsey announces that Juneteenth will be a company-wide holiday, the first thing that leaps to mind is that even a broken clock is right twice a day. On Tuesday, the Twitter and Square CEO and staunch defender of “free speech” — aka an internet that fosters unchecked White supremacy and other bigotry — tweeted that his businesses would recognize June 19, the day enslaved African Americans won their freedom from bondage.

Coming on the heels of similar announcements from media companies (Vox, The 19th) and ad agencies (TBWA Worldhealth), Dorsey’s move makes it hard not to imagine a pack of businesses and legislatures following suit. But while the effort to recognize a holiday Black folks have celebrated from jump should be commended, the skinfolk are acutely sensitive — particularly now — to the performed advocacy of Black interest.

We’re seeing it everywhere. Brands big and small are going all in on wrapping up their historically exploitative practices, whether in the workplace or in public, in pledges of solidarity. Dorsey, here, is no different. Twitter has long been home to some of the worst anti-Black, xenophobic, anti-Semitic and queerphobic moments on the internet. To make a fuss about Juneteenth in the wake of racist killings on a platform where hate speech has nestled in comfortably feels a bit hypocritical.

Nonetheless, Juneteenth is a unique holiday for a few reasons. It’s a secular observance that happens to be members-only, for one. But the real irony here is that its very existence is both pro-labor and emphatically abolitionist — which makes its adoption by companies that have historically prioritized profits over people a little… confounding.

Let’s be clear: In large part because Juneteenth codifies calling in Black, the country at large has never leapt to codify it. Although the observance has been adopted by 46 states and one federal district, it never had the name recognition of a martyr nor the colonialist egoism of a Spanish explorer, so we’ve never really had a day off to celebrate it.

Make no mistake: A Juneteenth with no mention of today’s policing nor the bevy of American businesses and institutions which still support mass incarceration of Black people is doing Black folks no justice.

Indeed, the history of the holiday — as is the case with most recognitions of Black culture in White institutions — is defined by delay. On June 19, 1865, two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, word finally got down to Union soldiers in Galveston, Texas, that shit was actually in full effect. After that year, Houston, Austin, Galveston, and other big cities in the state prepared for the barbecues, potlucks, picnics, and get-downs we put on for each other. We shirked work duties to go outside and sip sweet tea with the fam. We took trips to the beach with giant umbrellas, working our feet in the sand with cousins and play-cousins alike. We drunkenly sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and piecemeal lines of the Negro national anthem that we wailed in communal ecstasy.

But our personal vacays never spurred a concrete movement. It took a whole civil rights movement for institutions to begin to declare it special. And even then it took another 15 years before a state — Texas, where the very first Jubilee Day happened — would ink Juneteenth on its calendar. Many other states followed suit: As of today, 46 states declare it special… to a point. None of them have required a day off. It would take a push from large businesses themselves to really make that happen.

National holidays have always been political. Especially ones of the Black variety. Often, as is the case with MLK Day, the purpose is to give our martyrs new life, to reanimate their work and contextualize it in the current times. But just as often it becomes the backdrop for some serious co-opting and opportunism by corporations that use a day — or, in February, a month of “very special” lip-service commercials — to lull the masses into a state of falsified “progress.”

How, then, should we take this move for easy brownie points?

I’m of the mind that we eat the cake. Having an extra day off has never been an issue for Black folks. Keep ’em coming. But symbols alone have never freed anyone. The Emancipation Proclamation itself is a paper symbol that took two years to manifest, and even then, it was insufficient in rooting out violent White supremacy. Juneteenth became imbued with a new symbolic spin during the civil rights movement, when organizers remixed its abolitionist underpinnings into a source of political/legal recognition.

This new update to our understanding sits at a crucial moment in American history: The term “abolition” has taken on an urgency and mass appeal not seen since the 1970s. In acknowledgement — or perhaps in opposition — prison and police abolition is already being rebranded and twisted into incremental reform, and its legacy in Black resistance is being tested.

Make no mistake: A Juneteenth with no mention of today’s policing nor the bevy of American businesses and institutions which still support mass incarceration of Black people is doing Black folks no justice. It is no peace offering. Juneteenth should be a national day off for Black people to assess our economic and cultural value in a system that doesn’t serve us, while celebrating the ways organizers like the OG Juneteenth holiday campaigner Opal Lee — who literally walked the span of the country evangelizing the cause — sustain these histories. You won’t see her name in Jack Dorsey’s tweets. You won’t see the other organizations and individuals who have campaigned for decades, either. What you will find is a brief Wikipedia history, a pledge, and a form for business owners to sign up for clocking out with the Black folks every year.

The push for Juneteenth’s federal acknowledgment — much like our calls for the abolition of police and prisons — is decades in the making. And much like the calls to “defund the police” rather than remove them altogether, making Juneteenth a national holiday without the nation reflecting on how it replaced slavery with mass incarceration is a farce. But what we as a people do with that day off is essentially up to us. We party, invoking the names of Black people who were undaunted and unwavering in their care for us. The Shabazzes, the Davises, the Opal Lees, and all the everydays whose names we might never know. But nowhere on that shining loom of Black struggle will we find the name Jack Dorsey. And the moment it does, we’ll realize all our clocks are broken.