If you Google it, you’ll see words like “celebration,” “freedom,” “commemoration.” These words speak to the end of slavery in America — or more accurately, the end of the deception that kept slavery alive until the last possible moment. Enslaved Africans in Texas were the last to know that they were free. Juneteenth is about celebration, sure, but it’s also about the painfully slow evolution of freedom and the perceived losses of those who deliberately withheld that freedom.
President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in Washington D.C., on January 1, 1863. Unfortunately for the slaves of Galveston, Texas, news travelled slowly — by circumstance and by design. They suffered two and a half more years of toil, brutality, and other atrocities before the Union army arrived on June 19, 1865 to announce they were free.
Historians cite that some slave owners throughout the South took advantage of Texas’ isolated location in the Confederacy and relocated their slaves to continue their oppression. Other slave owners, refusing to accept the loss of their property, hanged their slaves rather than let them walk free.
That first June 19 was bittersweet.
Juneteenth is the day we commemorate and celebrate the end of 250 years of bondage. It is also a day to reflect on the progress we’ve made, and the challenges we still have to overcome. This year’s Juneteenth, coming on the heels of the deaths of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve, reminds us of the bittersweet victory of those newly freed Texas slaves. After their initial jubilation, they must have been anxious about their path forward.They must have been wondering, what’s next?
As a nation, we should be asking similar questions. After the outrage, the protests, and the comprehension of the challenges that lie ahead for true equality and healing — what’s next?
That is also a question we must ask ourselves as a design community. Have we fully embraced and helped to elevate Black designers or are we only looking for their input during Black History Month?
Emory Douglas, 2015 AIGA Medalist, leveraged his talents as a graphic designer to call out the government and other institutions that perpetuated racism, police brutality and poverty in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. His memorable work helped define a movement and elevated our social consciousness then. Do we have the will to do the same now? And to do it thoughtfully?
Firebrand Creative House founder Schessa Garbutt spoke the truth in an article she wrote for Design Toast titled “Black Lives Matter is Not a Design Challenge”. She says, “I don’t want to feel like I’m a trend and ‘my moment’ has passed.” I feel you, Schessa.
I can hear the excuses percolating in the minds of the larger design community. “Where are the Black designers? I don’t know any.” Well, lucky for you, Designer/Podcaster Maurice Cherry of Revision Path has done some of the homework. Maurice has obtained 351 (and counting) interviews with Black creatives across the country. I’m sure a few are worth hiring or collaborating with in the months outside of February. In February, our plates are full.
I can’t begin to count how many conversations I’ve had with frustrated Black designers. They are looking for jobs but finding potential employers and businesses who seem to want Black designers only to promote a Black history museum exhibit or an African dance performance. That’s a sad state of affairs on so many levels. The challenge of avoiding being typecast or only interviewed to check a diversity box is a very real thing in the Black design community.
So the question becomes: Is the move towards equality in the country also a move towards equity in design? Will this movement sustain itself or will the creative community grow weary or distracted or bored of the moment and eventually just swipe left? Next.
We’ve all witnessed injustices and biases played out through uploaded videos, and twitter rants and we’ve added thumbs downs and angry-faced emojis and then…moved on. What happens when the injustice is perpetrated in spaces that are hard to see like the marketing department, design studio, or even between a creative director’s ears. Are you willing to speak out when there is no one else to speak, and the conversation has become uncomfortable?
How do we move forward?
We can only forge a path forward by recognizing the unlevel playing field for Black designers and seek out ways to make a seat at the table. We should embrace diversity in our studios and in-house marketing departments. Seek out connections and ways to collaborate with Black designers in the creative community. Follow them on Instagram and Twitter to elevate their visibility. Most importantly, learn to recognize that the Eurocentric design perspective is not the only design perspective that matters. In the design community, there is still work to be done on equality.
Juneteenth is a day of celebration. Virtual talks, performances, and literature are available to give you a good understanding of why the Black community holds this day close to their hearts. But it’s also a day of reflection to assess the challenges that lie ahead. Consider your role in rooting out the hidden corners of bias and racism that still have a strong grip in this country. How will you contribute to the narrative? Are you willing to push towards progress and become an ally in propelling our nation and our profession forward? Are you willing to challenge yourself and be a little uncomfortable? Are you willing to ask yourself honestly, what’s next?
Juneteenth celebrations are being held across the web and in public spaces on June 19. Here are a few places where you can join celebrations, and learn more about Juneteenth.
Been in the Storm So Long by Leon F. Litwack
About the Author
Leon Lawrence III is the AIGA DC Design for Good chair. Author of Career Diary of a Publication Design Director and art director of Harlem: the Vision of Morgan and Marvin Smith. He is a former Vice President of the Organization of Black Designers, DC Chapter.
About the Art
Tré Seals is a brand specialist and type designer. He is the founder of (Studio) Seals and Vocal Type Co. He’s been recognized as the youngest Ascender by the Type Directors Club, a Black Trailblazer by The Dots, and has been featured in Print, How, and Communication Arts magazines, and more.
Behind the Art
The design was partially inspired by the phrase “mind the gap,” as it relates to some of the holes in our industry. But it also has an analytical feel to it. Like the typeface, that feel comes from the infographics of American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, writer and editor, W.E.B. Du Bois.
After completing graduate work at the University of Berlin and Harvard, where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate, he became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University.
During his tenure at Atlanta University, Du Bois was asked to contribute a social study about African-American life to the Exposition Universelle, the Paris World Fair of 1900. For Du Bois, the show presented both an opportunity and a challenge. Part of his contribution was carefully curating 500 photographs to show a nuanced snapshot of what life was like for black Americans. While he wanted to use the photographs to undercut racist stereotypes about African-Americans, the images alone did not relay the underlining ways that the institution of slavery continued to impact African-American progress in the country. So he set about making approximately 60 carefully handmade data visualizations, to dictate, in full, vibrant color, the reasons why black America was being held back.