(Op-Ed) From Past Erasure to Present Commodification: Reckoning with the Emergence of Juneteenth

Juneteenth has gained considerable prominence in the years following the post-George Floyd “racial reckoning” that swept the United States.

Juneteenth has gained considerable prominence in the years following George Floyd’s murder which swept the United States in what some might call a “racial reckoning”

Despite its recent popularity, it’s important that we have a conversation about what the holiday is, what it isn’t, and how we can stay true to the power it holds.

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Juneteenth is a day celebrating the so-called end of slavery for Black people in America, which occurred on June 19th 1865. In 1863, while most of the country was “freed,” not everyone (particularly the state of Texas) adhered to the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Lincoln. For another two years after slavery was deemed unconstitutional, over 250,000 enslaved Black people continued to toil under one of the most ruthlessly violent and barbaric systems in world history. Again, it is important to make this distinction that the Emancipation Proclamation, while freeing many, did not free everyone immediately.

One source notes that “Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Court House two months earlier in Virginia, but slavery had remained relatively unaffected in Texas—until U.S. General Gordon Granger stood on Texas soil and read General Orders No. 3: ‘The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.'”

The last enslaved Black people were freed in Galveston Texas on June 19 1865, and celebrating their freedom became a cultural, communal rite of passage. On June 19th, 1866, the one year anniversary of this day, Juneteenth was born!

While it is certainly a day to rejoice because of its historical and cultural significance, it the “so-called” end of slavery because millions of Black people remain enslaved in nearly identical systems of bondage known today as redlining, the prison industrial complex, and policing institutions.

The US Army had to literally march city by city, and finally into the state of Texas to demand by force that the 13th Amendment be recognized and enforced.

Since Juneteenth was created, the ways African Americans have celebrated it has become a widespread cultural phenomenon. From parades, cakewalks, concerts, charity events, and church festivals to family gatherings, it marks the kickoff for the summer holidays.

In a world where Black people are at constant threat of violence and trauma, Juneteenth represents, even for just a day, a celebration for freedom and community. Black people should feel empowered to remove their protective walls against white supremacy, to not codeswitch or assimilate, but to simply be–unapologetically Black, free, and joyful.

Juneteenth carries a little extra something this summer because it is the second year that it is considered a national holiday. While it’s important to acknowledge the Juneteenth as a nationally significant event, it’s equally important to acknowledge the commodification of Black history to fit political and corporate interests.

The downsides of corporate acknowledgment of cultural events is their commodification (for example, companies using the LGBTQ+ Flag to promote their products for PRIDE or promoting culturally insensitive events for Cinco De Mayo); these “celebrations” often have no purposeful connection to such events and perpetuate harmful stereotypes about marginalized groups.

Among Juneteenth-themed plates, one appropriates Black vernacular, reading: “It’s the freedom for me”

We cannot let that happen! Juneteenth was never meant to be about ice cream flavors, overpriced corny merchandise, and Juneteenth T-shirts like those ones Old Navy sells for Fourth of July. (I know you remember those.)

Instead of allowing it to be commodified into something that reeks of the same greedy, money-grubbing, dehumanizing spirit that informed our initial enslavement; this time around, we must not allow our day to become sanitized or fail to remember its true purpose. And the white folks should just be allies and leave our space to it’s peace!

Do not, I repeat, do not, try and profit from it unless you are going to give the proceeds directly to Black organizations or people. We simply want to have the day as we see fit to spend it loving ourselves and celebrating our progress as a people. Simple.

To my Black folks; allowing ourselves to continue enjoying this holiday with our own intentions in mind is so much more important than what ice cream flavor Wal-Mart deems as the official flavor of the occasion.

Eating our ancestral foods, creating our own traditions, having our luxury and relaxation practices and being mournful, but mindful of how far we have come is what this holiday is for.

Watch this column in the coming weeks as we take to task in preparation for Juneteenth how you can make the best of the day that is for and about US and US only.

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