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Celebrating Juneteenth: A Conversation with Joél Leon on Igniting Change and Making a Difference

Today, on Juneteenth, we commemorate the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the United States, tracing its roots back to the historic event that took place in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. Although it was not until 2021 that Juneteenth was officially recognized as a federal holiday, the significance of this momentous day has long been acknowledged by communities across the country. We had the privilege of further delving into the significance of this holiday, through the lens of Joél Leon, a Bronx-born performer, author, and storyteller.


Joél Leon is a Bronx-born and raised performer, proud #GirlDad, author, and storyteller who writes and tells stories for Black people — specializing in moderating and leading conversations surrounding race, masculinity, mental health, creativity, and the performing arts, Joél puts love at the center of his work and purpose.


He is currently a Creative Director at the New York Times’ T Brand Studio. He has worked with TED, ABC NEWS, The Gates Foundation, HBO, Nike, Twitter, and the TODAY Show. His essays and words have been featured in the New York Times, POP SUGAR, EBONY, The Black News Channel, Forbes, and more.


Joél is currently working on his first essay collection, “What Kind of Black Are You?” to be published by Holt/MacMillian.


In this blog article, we invite you to join us as we explore the power of this historic day, the positive changes it inspires, and most importantly, the collective strength we all possess to shape a more equitable and just future.


Juneteenth is a day of remembrance, reflection, and celebration. Could you share with us the significance of Juneteenth in your life and journey?


Joél: What I love most about Juneteenth is the collective, multi-generational joy that’s felt across the Black community. There’s a shared understanding of the holiday’s significance and it’s forced many of us, myself included, to learn the history of the day. There’s a relearning that’s been happening since the holidays inception, and each year, seeing more of us honoring the day fills my heart up. I take the day to rest, to enjoy my being here at this time and this moment, and take time to try and reflect on the honor we have to sit in remembrance of all those ancestors who came before us and risked their lives just so I can live mine. That’s why it’s so special to me — it calls to mind that, while there is so much work left to do, we can set aside, even just for a brief moment, a day to find joy in what is here.


Juneteenth has gained increased national attention in recent years. How do you think this heightened visibility can translate into tangible advancements?


Joél: Awareness does not always equal change, but what it can do is increase engagement. I think of things and how they reverberate. I like to call it the “echo effect.” It’s the notion that an act, whether small or big, will create impact that lives beyond the initial interaction. The holiday itself becoming mainstream has made others ask what it’s about or what it’s for or who it is for and that, in and of itself, I believe is progress. Now progress doesn’t mean completion but this being even in the lexicon of thought is a start. This opens the door for a more integrated education process, maybe even more conversations about public policy.


As we strive for a more inclusive and equitable society, how can Juneteenth serve as a catalyst for conversations and action towards dismantling systemic racism and promoting racial justice?


Joél: I wouldn’t call this a reckoning per se, because a reckoning also requires some level of accountability for the wrong caused. I would not say America is there yet. However, this even being a conversation we’re having in 2023 means that there is some kind of discourse that we are hungry for, starving for even. There is something to be said for this moment, and the invitation to dig a bit deeper into our history to better understand how we can support Black folks in ways that can measure up to the injustice caused. So much has been lost and severed, so many of us have had our stories stolen from us. Juneteenth serves as a reclamation.


What steps do you believe individuals and communities can take to ensure that Juneteenth is not just a symbolic holiday, but also a catalyst for lasting systemic change?


Joél: It starts every day with fostering stronger ties to our local communities. I firmly do believe our liberation is a collective responsibility. It is not solely in the hands of the individual, and it surely will not come from the state or national level. It requires a deep respect and passion for a multigenerational effort that involves all of us supporting local businesses, supporting our neighbors, educating ourselves and a dedicated purpose that involves servitude to the greater good of humanity. So, we volunteer when we can. We become mentors. We donate. We vote. We protest when we see injustice. We share resources and information. We love on each other. We rest. We honor our ancestors by honoring each other.



How do you see the role of storytelling and literature in shaping the narrative and understanding of Juneteenth for future generations?


Joél: Storytellers carry the torch. We hold light to the truth and shine it all over. Storytellers really are no different than historians in that we are responsible for bearing the weight of the past in the ways we share these stories. When we get it right, we are teaching the next generation, preparing them and guiding them by offering them our wisdom and knowing through language. That language is an offering, right? It feeds us all. It is public record. It is why I am so adamant about the sharing of our stories. Juneteenth would be unknown if not for public record, for public discourse. Someone thought that the celebration was worth documenting. Someone then thought that document was worth saving. Literature is how we save the past from dying.


In your opinion, how can non-Black individuals and communities respectfully and authentically participate in Juneteenth celebrations? What steps can they take to honor the holiday and show solidarity with the Black community?


Joél: Don’t get in the way [laughs]. No seriously, just be an ally, and even an accomplice. An ally is willing to stand in support of a marginalized voice but an accomplice uses their power and privilege to challenge the status quo, and often take personal risks in the process. Ask “where can I be of service?”, “where would you like/want me to be?”, “how can I show up for you and the community at this moment?” Blackness is not a monolith and neither are our community needs. And every community across the nation is different. So, what Minneapolis needs may be different from what the Bronx needs. You have to be open, be receptive to the thought that what you want pales in comparison to what the community may need. And that requires a diminishing of ego. It is of the utmost importance that folks listen. Sometimes, no action is required. Sometimes, it’s just about being present and available. You will learn what is needed.


To learn more about Juneteenth explore the National Museum of African American History & Culture and the Smithsonian Learning Lab's resources on the history of Juneteenth and the Black community in the United States.


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