I let out a whoop of excitement when I heard Cognizant would observe Juneteenth as a company holiday for U.S. associates.
Hailing from Texas, where the historic June 19 announcement of slavery’s end occurred in 1865, I’ve celebrated Juneteenth annually since I was a child. Honoring it today as a company holiday feels like part of an inspiring, galvanizing moment. I see it as the beginning of broader meaningful change on the path toward justice and equality.
In fact, calling my reaction a “whoop” is probably an understatement as it comes on the heels of the sleepless nights I’ve spent over the last few weeks. The death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests have triggered my own painful memories of racism – those searing experiences that many of us have put in a box so we can move on. Of the many questions I wrestled with, I wondered: Were things really changing?
When word of the company’s observance of this historical day was announced, the answer was an emphatic yes. More than 150 years on, Juneteenth was going national. I felt nothing but hopefulness. After a few virtual high-fives and smiles with colleagues, I started to think about how I’d spend the day.
In my home town, there was always a Juneteenth parade. In temperatures that often reached 95 degrees, we’d stand by the side of the road and cheer the parade’s procession of cars and honking horns. Afterwards, we’d all gather at the recreation center for food and games. The joy of community I felt in those afternoons will always be with me.
Amid social distancing, I’m celebrating emancipation in ways that are decidedly more low-key but no less jubilant. I’ll spend the day with my family, talking and sharing. Together, we’ll watch a Black history movie.
I’ll also reflect on the past and what I can do to help change the future because there’s a solemn aspect to Juneteenth. The day also memorializes slaves who lost their lives and never experienced freedom. I sometimes think about the lost chapters of Black history and where our country would be if we’d celebrated Black Americans’ achievements. What if we had acknowledged the soldiers who served in World Wars I and II, putting aside their own civil rights struggles to fight for the rights of others? What if history books had recognized inventor George Washington Carver and pioneering surgeon Dr. Charles Drew? If they had, would we be in a different place?
The stories of Carver and Drew are as vivid to me today as when I first encountered them during my childhood. To my parents, it was important that my brother and I view our own intrinsic value through the lens of Black history. To ensure we did, they bought us the series of children’s Black history books sold at the local drug store. I read them all. In presentations to my middle school classmates, I shared the stories I’d learned. Sadly, names like Carver and Drew were unknown to them.
What You Can Do
So on Juneteenth, I ask my colleagues to learn, to reflect and to make a difference. It can be as simple as having a conversation with your team or co-workers about race and justice. Change starts with empathy. We need to hear each other’s stories, and to be aware that we don’t all start out in the same place.
Today is also a time to hold up a mirror on ourselves. How do our own biases impact the way we engage with colleagues, whether it’s extending an invitation to dinner or evaluating a colleague? If you’re looking for a place to begin, watch YouTube’s always fascinating series Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. In this 12-minute episode, host Emmanuel Acho speaks with Matthew McConaughey about unpacking the opportunity to acknowledge and understand one another.
Share Juneteenth with your family, too. Spend a few hours uncovering some remarkable facts about Black history. Watch an historical drama like Selma, or read Just Mercy. Tackle those hard-to-have conversations with your family about race in your community. Become an ally, because progress won’t happen until those who are unaffected become as outraged as those who are.
The spirit of Juneteenth starts with each of us. Make it count.
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