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Following recent weeks of racial justice protests and discussions, SAG-AFTRA, all of Hollywood’s major agencies and several PR firms have announced Juneteenth will be a paid company holiday this year and going forward. Juneteenth marks the day, on June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Texas to announce the Civil War had ended and all slaves were now free, thereby ending slavery in the U.S. — two and half years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became official on January 1, 1863.
Though celebrated in Black communities for generations, the day only recently has gained attention with white people and the call to recognize Juneteenth as a US federal holiday has gained steam. And though much of the entertainment industry will take Friday off, social impact agency Inspire Justice, which educates and trains stars, influencers and media companies to use their platforms for social good, has a different recommendation: “a day on.”
Brea Baker, director of programming for Inspire Justice, and Taylor K. Shaw, social impact advisor for the organization as well as founder and CEO of production company Black Women Animate, talked to The Hollywood Reporter about how they recommend Hollywood spends Juneteenth, what they advise their celebrity clients to post and why the holiday’s recognition is significant.
There’s been lots of discussion recently around Juneteenth as a paid holiday, but your group Inspire Justice says we should focus on a day on rather than a day off. Can you explain?
Brea Baker: The idea behind the day on is similar to MLK Day and the idea that allies specifically should not be using the day as just another paid holiday, but rather a day to be specifically intentional about racial justice and anti-Blackness in this country — specifically with the history of Juneteenth and its connection to the abolition of slavery, it should be day for self education on that legacy. The idea is that obviously Black folks should definitely take the day to rest and to celebrate and to enjoy, but for those who are not as closely tied to the specific history behind this holiday, they should take that time to learn about that history, to be in service to the Black community, etc.
What are some specific ways that entertainment companies should spend Juneteenth?
Baker: What we’ve been advocating to others is that they should be modeling for the rest of the industry and encouraging people, especially because this is so new and many teams have just made the decision to celebrate it as a day off this week, that in that time, they’re able to model — whether that’s through their social media platform or internal communication with their team — that they’re letting folks know the intentionality behind what Juneteenth means. It’s not just another day to just to be lax, but to maintain the sanctity of the day is really important. The industry obviously has so many different vehicles and platforms to be able to get that message out to a larger audience, so I think that’s what the opportunity is on Friday.
Taylor K. Shaw: For the entertainment industry, having Juneteenth be less of a day of reflection and another day of action is what we should be encouraging across the board. I’m the founder and CEO of BWA studios, which was created to further build equity, specifically in the animation industry, but really serve as a blueprint for what is possible when we center the voices, stories and works of creatives of color. The industry also needs to take really big steps toward making solid, not momentary, but long-lasting commitment toward equity and that really has to be a key focus on Friday for the industry —”Okay, like what real, tangible and actual change are we going to start to implement within our companies and how is that going to be spread throughout the industry?”
How do we make sure this day doesn’t go the way of #BlackoutTuesday, when there was a lot of criticism over silence and performative activism?
Baker: Inspire Justice has been doing a lot of work to organize celebrities to be a part of this. I think what happened with #BlackoutTuesday was that something that was started specifically for one industry morphed into something larger and there just wasn’t a cohesive narrative that was being shared, so it was updating as the day went on and as things were becoming clear that certain hashtags were being consumed. What we’ve been trying to avoid, one, is by holding webinars and educating those with large platforms on what the history of Juneteenth actually is; we did one of those webinars on Wednesday and had a really great audience of influencers and industry leaders in the space to be a part of that conversation. Then we follow up each of these webinars with calls-to-action assets and talking points to supporting people and understanding, “What are vetted ways that you can engage with us on social media? What are Black activists asking of us all in this moment?”
#BlackoutTuesday, because it was something that came up so organically, there wasn’t that time to put in that preparation, but Juneteenth is something that has been celebrated since 1866 so Black communities specifically have been knowing that Juneteenth was coming up. We as a company have been able to pull together resources and assets and essentially a toolkit for how to engage with Juneteenth in that way. There are others doing great work as well, especially the #HellaJuneteenth team that is getting folks in the industry to commit to making it a paid holiday. They’re also going further by providing them resources on what out-of-office emails could look like and what templates you can use to engage for the first time on the topic.
What’s your message for how stars and influencers should be using their platform for Juneteenth?
Baker: The main thing that we’ve been encouraging folks is to really center Black voices; I think the times when things go most awry or when it’s like, “Oh, I just got called out, my intentions are pure,” are often when people are trying to speak for others. You can’t go wrong by uplifting Black activists and community leaders who already have the trust of the community and also have that context, they can really contextualize what Juneteenth means in 2020. We’ve really been encouraging people to uplift from existing leadership like Movement for Black Lives and the Black Lives Matter Global Network. Also you can’t go wrong by modeling for people what you don’t know. I think sometimes, especially with influencers who are expected to be experts on a lot of different things, there’s this urge to allow for that illusion and to try and maintain the illusion of being an expert. There’s so much power in saying, “This is my first time hearing about this holiday, I’m taking the cues of Black activists who are asking us to do X, Y, and Z.”
Something that we shared on Wednesday’s Inspire Justice webinar was encouraging people to actually uplift the resources that they were going to dive into. So you’re going to spend the day binge-listening to a podcast or watching the 13th documentary or reading a book by a Black author, share that with your followers and let them know: “For the day, this is the action that I’m taking to self educate and I encourage you to do the same.” There’s so many resources out there as to where we can start with that, I believe this was the first time that the New York Times bestsellers list was exclusively made up of books by Black authors. There’s so much out there that we don’t need to do too much digging about and there’s a lot of great information that already exists so we don’t really need to reinvent the wheel. That’s what we’ve really been encouraging: when in doubt, repost and credit live leaders and black activists.
What’s the importance of Juneteenth finally being widely recognized, both in Hollywood and beyond?
Baker: The biggest opportunity is raising awareness for the true history of the day. I think what’s important to note is that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863 but all Black Americans weren’t notified of their freedom until 1865. It’s important to remember that because we have a history in this country of taking shortcuts at the expense of Black communities and that justice delayed is something that Black communities have traditionally been experiencing. When, especially those who are involved in entertainment and media and shaping the narrative that people knowingly or unknowingly take into their day-to-day lives and day-to-day actions, it’s important that we continue to be honest about the history of this country. The narrative of “this isn’t who we are” or “I’m just learning about these things” is coming from a place of being uninformed about the reality of how long and far this country has gone to ensure that Black lives were tertiary to the needs of the economy, to the needs of white society, etc. So just being really intentional about not letting this day be whitewashed or being diluted is really important, and then taking that time to also talk about “What does it mean for us to be celebrating a day about freedom in a time where most people do not feel free? What is the responsibility of the industry to be a part of creating action shifts?” to Taylor’s point.
Shaw: We are in the business of story, so Hollywood, it’s time to shift the narrative and get the stories right. Just as we encourage people to share the voices of color Friday on social media, Hollywood, it has to be even more than that — yes, do that, but it’s important to share the true narratives of black people and really start to do that now with Juneteenth. This story, people don’t know it and the true history of Black folks and displaced people being emancipated, we didn’t even get that information. So it’s going to be important for Hollywood to to share the mic as we say, and to really be committed to doing that in a meaningful and not just momentary way.
What would you like to see Juneteenth become going forward?
Shaw: A national holiday and day of action.
Baker: Heightened political power. Something that I shared in Wednesday’s webinar was that the first time that Juneteenth was celebrated, it was formerly enslaved Black people coming together, pooling resources and buying land. The idea was that we had achieved some wins but we still had work to do. To Taylor’s point around day of action, I just feel like specifically action around building political power and ensuring that black people actually have not just a seat at the table but a stake.
What’s your outlook at this moment and going forward?
Baker: I’m definitely optimistic about things. There’s a beautiful Angela Davis quote that basically says, “To be an activist is to be an optimist because you have to believe that you can actually transform the world to engage in this kind of work.” So I’m definitely optimistic and I’m also excited to see that many people are also interested in having the conversation of “Wait, we’ve been here before, why are we repeating the same conversations?” and looking to disrupt that cycle.
Shaw: For me as a black woman, of course I was aware and deeply connected to all of these issues, but the collective awakening that we’re seeing, it feels like a paradigm shift. So I am energized and excited, with Inspire Justice, to play a key role in how Hollywood really takes this moment and is on the right side of history in this paradigm shift.
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