What does it mean to celebrate Juneteenth?

What does it mean to celebrate Juneteenth?

Juneteenth may be the country’s newest federal holiday, but for many Black Americans, June 19 has long been associated with homegrown community celebrations,

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Juneteenth may be the country’s newest federal holiday, but for many Black Americans, June 19 has long been associated with homegrown community celebrations, if not at least understood as a day to symbolize freedom.

“For Black folks, there has been a long tradition of commemorating Juneteenth,” said Amara Enyia, policy and research coordinator at Movement for Black Lives.

But now that Juneteenth is a federal holiday, complete with offices and schools closing in recognition of it, the inevitable has also taken shape: commercialism.

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Box stores from coast to coast are lining shelves with Juneteenth products. Walmart caught the most flack recently for stocking a Juneteenth Great Value brand ice cream flavor, the label touting a trademark symbol. The move prompted questions about who can even own the idea of Juneteenth, and the appropriateness of corporations cashing in on what could be considered a bittersweet holiday, commemorating the end of enslavement and the beginning of a generations-long struggle for civil rights.

‘We cannot, at this stage, afford symbolism’

In Galveston, Texas, the home of Juneteenth, residents began marking the day when members of the Union Army arrived upon the southern reaches of Texas in 1865 to both inform enslaved people that they were henceforth entitled to a wage for their labor, and to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation among slaveholders. Black people have led their own celebrations for the holiday since its inception. Their celebrations have since reached everywhere the Black diaspora has spread.

Juneteenth’s popularity has waxed and waned over the decades, but was thrust back into the public interest with racial justice movements demanding more political capital, especially in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Last year, President Joe Biden signed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, answering the calls from Black activists.

This year, some attempts to celebrate the day have gone sour, very publicly. Many were angry to see the trademarked Juneteenth ice cream on shelves, developed with the help of a corporation that creates artificial flavors, and a children’s museum apologized after its Juneteenth menu included a watermelon salad. A Juneteenth soul food celebration in Alabama was canceled after a leaked poster for the event revealed none of its featured hosts were Black.

“Companies that are having these picnics for their employees and feeding them fried chicken and watermelon — who made that call?” Torrina Harris of Galveston quipped.

Ultimately, said Enyia, “it is a testament to this country and the way our systems are set up to where the automatic knee-jerk default or response is profit-making or profit-seeking.”

The impulse, when it comes to many holidays, is to focus more on the “bright side” — in this case, emancipation, freedom — which lends itself to digestible celebrations and commemorative products. Doing so brushes aside the thing Black people were being emancipated from: centuries of slavery. But, Enyia said, the inherent nature of the holiday is also “a reminder of how this country has treated Black people. It’s a reminder of the history of this country.”

Angela Tate, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, points out that throughout all the generations of Juneteenth community-led celebrations, which have taken place in big cities, small towns and rural communities, Black people have tended to pair the bitter and the sweet.

“African Americans have always used these moments of memory to think about where the community has come from and what we’re pursuing and striving toward, as well as taking the time to pass down history and culture,” she said last year. “Juneteenth is a moment to think about freedom being conditional freedom and it is something that we must continuously strive and fight for.”

But major companies looking for a way to participate in Juneteenth celebrations “do not understand or are not interested in addressing the substantive issues that these holidays — this holiday in particular — can shed light on,” Enyia said.