Over the past few weeks, I have seen “Black Lives Matter” stated by companies, schools, famous people, and everyday people. It has been spray painted across stores in protest and even the Mayor of Washington, DC Muriel Bowser had it spray painted across a prominent street leading up to the White House. I opened up my iTunes account, Amazon Prime and even turned on my PlayStation and there it was again, “Black Lives Matter.” This has been followed by companies like Nike and Twitter deciding to honor Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when the last group of enslaved people in America found out they were emancipated, with days off or some other form of acknowledgment. While I think that these gestures of solidarity with those of us in the black community are indeed appreciated, I find myself asking, “What happens on June 20th?” “What happens after ‘Black Lives Matter’ comes off the website?” Enter Kwanzaa.
I come from a family that has always celebrated Kwanzaa, the holiday created by Dr. Maulana Karenga for African Americans to honor their African heritage. Though it starts on December 26th, it has always been a cultural celebration and not a replacement for Christmas, which is a religious holiday. This is the reason why some black families celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christmas. For those of us who celebrate Kwanzaa, it’s a sacred holiday, which is why many of us became frustrated when it started to become commercialized, starting with Hallmark issuing Kwanzaa cards in 1992. Now there are stamps and debit cards where the 7 candles of Kwanzaa are prominently displayed. Some companies issue statements honoring Kwanzaa or will put out some form of display in their lobbies. This superficial nature of Kwanzaa causes the true nature of it to get lost or never even learned. The true nature of Kwanzaa is black empowerment. To quote professor Keith Hayes, author of Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition:
Whereas black power uses Kwanzaa to connect black Americans with the continent of Africa, multicultural America uses Kwanzaa to sell products and consumer goods. Whereas black power expected Kwanzaa to liberate African-Americans, multicultural America has tried to use Kwanzaa as evidence of racial diversity and black inclusion.
But is there real diversity and black inclusion in your organization? While “Black Lives Matter” has become a great slogan to show solidarity with black causes, there are black employees in every sector from schools to corporations who have been saying for years that they want to matter within their organizations. They’ve called for this in the form of demanding equal pay, demanding a shattering of the glass ceiling, challenging everyday discrimination on the job, and so much more. And this is also happening with Juneteenth. Most black employees I know would rather have a shot at equal pay or an opportunity to advance in their positions than a day off, which in reality should be a day on in terms of continuing the work of racial and social justice.
If companies are serious about “Black Lives Matter” and Juneteenth they have to immediately re-evaluate their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. They have to do the work to finally hear the complaints and concerns of their blackstaff. They need to challenge systemic racism that may have existed in their organization for years. This is the same country where a statue was built to the father of American gynecology James Marion Sims, whose work was performed on black enslaved women without anesthesia. It’s the same country that touts having some of the most prominent universities in the world, but they were built by enslaved Africans. And it’s the same country where some companies have engaged in global travesties such as the Holocaust and apartheid.
But this country has the ability to self-correct and so do companies, schools, and other organizations. The statue of Sims came down. Schools like Georgetown have begun to create programs so descendants of enslaved Africans that were sold to keep the university afloat can go to Georgetown for free. Companies like Kodak, Coca-Cola, General Electric, General Motors, and I.B.M. did end up divesting from apartheid but none of this happened without activism, similar to what we are seeing now. This is how you show that Black Lives Matter, which is an organization started by three incredible women named Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Before organizations state “Black Lives Matter” I would strongly suggest visiting the Black Lives Matter website to truly understand its commitment to social, racial, and economic justice. “Black Lives Matter” is about a way of life for society that is truly committed to equality, not band-aids on an open wound still seeping blood from the sword of systemic racism.
I have had some very powerful courageous conversations with companies and schools in the past few weeks. Some organizations are very far ahead in their work on diversity, equity, and inclusion and some are just starting out. Wherever your organization may be on the road, what’s most important is to stay on that road and not veer off. If we’re honest, almost everything organizations need to do in order to bring true diversity, equity, and inclusion matters to the forefront has already been documented by the black employees in those organizations. Companies must go beyond the external displays of solidarity to internal responses to the concerns of their employees. This is the best way to truly show that #blacklivesmatter beyond the hashtag and to celebrate Juneteenth 365 days a year.