The Atlantic

From Celebration to For Sale: How America is Already Commercializing Juneteenth

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9 mins read

By Marlissa Collier

Were y’all able to get your Great Value Juneteenth ice cream, plates and napkins before Walmart pulled them off the shelves? Yeah, me neither. It all happened so fast. We went from defending the legitimacy of Juneteenth as a holiday to deciding whether we were convinced that America had pure intentions when it made Juneteenth a national holiday. 

Black Enterprise

Juneteenth has been a Black American tradition since 1866, when formerly enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, celebrated a year of emancipation and freedom. It’s worth noting that the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1963, but the more isolated areas of Texas didn’t learn of the proclamation until June 19, 1965 – more than two years after the rest of the Confederacy. After the inaugural celebration, Juneteenth quickly spread to the rest of the country, and the date continues to be the oldest known tradition honoring the end of slavery in the United States. Early celebrations were used as political rallies to give voting instructions to newly freed Black Americans and were held on Black-owned land, given state-sponsored segregation laws. And while celebrations declined during the Jim Crow era, Juneteenth would soon see a revival. Between the 1960s and 1980s Juneteenth celebrations slowly bounced back to a remnant of it’s prior glory and then in 2020, the holiday saw a nation-wide resurgence – driven mostly by the murder of George Floyd.

A year later, spurred on by the Congressional Black Caucus, on June 15, 2021, the Senate unanimously passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday. It subsequently passed through the House of Representatives on June 16. President Joe Biden signed the bill on June 17, 2021, making Juneteenth the eleventh American federal holiday and the first to obtain legal observance as a federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was designated in 1983. And all of a sudden, gaggles of large U.S. corporations were interested in celebrating the holiday – many of them aimlessly scrambling to put out obligatory statements via social media or employee memos from their top ranking Black executives. Some companies even went so far as to give employees the option to take the day off…if they really wanted to *wink*.

Correlating with this seemingly performative activism came another American shadow-tradition: capitalist exploitation. America has about proven that nothing is off limits when it comes to capitalist gain. In fact, every February and June, we watch powerful entities that have little to no interest in the progression of Black or LGBTQ employees or communities transform their logos with colors and imagery that align with the community being celebrated. Now, big business doesn’t do this because they have any genuine interest in the uplifting of these communities, but because they know that even while this type of alignment frustrates a faction of middle America, this alignment is good for the bottom line given members marginalized communities and younger generations require at least the outward appearance of social responsibility and community engagement from the companies they do business with. In this case, Juneteenth offers another opportunity for big business to profit off of Black culture, Black pain, members of the community, and those who have positioned themselves as allies. 

But, this is America. So, did we really expect Juneteenth to be made a national holiday without a graceless capitalist run on the profits? At this point, we would have expected large corporations to have learned their lesson about exploiting Black pain for capital gain. Right? But then again, Black exploitation for capitalist gain is, well, the literal foundation of this country…you know, because there was that whole slavery thing. So, sadly, it actually comes as no surprise to many us that even a holiday, which only exists because of former atrocities committed in the name of said capitalist gain, is now itself being levied for even more capitalist gain. 

This should, though, make you wonder: was Juneteenth made a national holiday simply for symbolic/commercial purposes, because it certainly wasn’t to push progress – given at the time of it’s nationalization, we still hadn’t been able to pass an anti-lynching bill and are today still attempting to get the Voting Rights Act and ADOS reparations on the books. It’s giving passing a Sunshine Protection Act when we need Windfall Tax legislation; it’s giving questionable priorities. But if Black people aren’t the ones benefiting from Juneteenth as a national holiday, who is? Quite frankly, it’s the same people who have profited from every other over-commercialized holiday. It’s big business. 

From Walmart selling Juneteenth themed ice cream and picnic essentials to Balchem Corp’s abandoned attempt to trademark the word “Juneteenth”, we can see that a holiday once considered “made up” is now being used as a profit grab. But America has a long-standing tendency of missing all the points. A holiday meant to celebrate the end of an era wherein Black bodies were levied for capitalist gain is now being levied for capitalist gain. If “we just can’t help ourselves” was a country! America said, “look here, take these watermelon salads, this red velvet/cheesecake ice cream, a few Juneteenth themed plates and napkins, but it’s going be a smooth ‘no’ on those reparations.” The irony is chuckle inducing. 

All-in-all, as Juneteenth regains popularity and commercialization follows, members of the Black American community and allies should attempt to keep Juneteenth as sacred as possible – taking the time to honor the ancestors’ whose sacrifices led to the progress we’ve seen while taking time to recognize the process yet to be made. We know that freedom and justice has long been delayed for Black Americans, but Juneteenth is a precious reminder that we have seen some celebration-worthy progress, even if only in the slightest. This year, keep the food and drinks red, the grill lit, the playlist tight and hearts and minds connected to those who came before. Oh and protect Kwanzaa at all costs, because, you know, America. Happy Juneteenth, family. 

ABOUT THE WRITER:

Marlissa is a Los Angeles native and Dallas based writer and podcaster. She’s the founder and editor in chief of Dollar15 Blog and co-host of the Green Route Podcast. Marlissa’s work centers on telling stories that celebrate Black culture, promote political awareness, and inform the community on social issues. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok @BlackGirlFlyy.

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