When President Joe Biden last year signed legislation enshrining Juneteenth as a federal holiday, it seemed to augur a new day in U.S. race relations. Congressional lawmakers passed the bill with scant opposition—all from Republicans. The signing ceremony at the White House occurred less than two months after Hennepin County jurors convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin of the murder of George Floyd.
“We have come far, and we have far to go,” Vice President Kamala Harris told the audience of politicians, activists and community organizers assembled in the East Room. “But today is a day of celebration.”
Calling the bill’s passage “one of the greatest honors” of his presidency, Biden proclaimed: “Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments; they embrace them.” Continuing, he said, “In short, this day doesn’t just celebrate the past. It calls for action today.”
What a difference a year makes.
What many African Americans once saw as a promising overture towards racial reconciliation in the aftermath of Floyd’s lynching on a South Minneapolis street corner has quickly degenerated into just another commercial opportunity for retailers selling everything from Juneteenth ice cream to watermelon salad.
“When,” Dedan Waciuri, an African American activist in North Carolina, demanded to know in a recent Facebook post, “did Juneteenth turn into a Bl[ac]k Business expo?”
Another Black activist in New Jersey responded to Waciuri’s question thusly: “I know I DAMNED SURE AS H*LL AIN’T Celebrating that federal farce called Juneteenth National Freedom Day! That’s pimping out our struggles. And if Black [people] are going to buy any Juneteenth merchandise, it should at least be from Black vendors/businesses.
“And yes, we must break free from capitalism, and that ain’t necessarily about freedom, but we should at least do that, if we’re going to buy Juneteenth merchandise.”
The growing backlash has forced corporations to walk back plans to cash in on the new federal holiday. Walmart executives said last month that they would remove its store-brand ice cream celebrating Juneteenth.
“Juneteenth holiday marks a celebration of freedom and independence,” the company said in a statement. “However, we received feedback that a few items caused concern for some of our customers and we sincerely apologize. We are reviewing our assortment and will remove items as appropriate.”
“Juneteenth should be an opportunity to talk about hard truths rather than selling watermelon salad.”
Similarly, the Indianapolis Children’s Museum has pulled its Juneteenth watermelon salad from its shelves.
To many observers, the exploitation of the Juneteenth holiday for marketing purposes mirrors the exploitation of the Black body in American life. It represents a squandered opportunity to finally begin to address slavery’s robust afterlife and the pivotal role that racism has played in shaping a flawed and fickle democracy.
Defined as a “day of service,” the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, for instance, stands in sharp contrast to the almost vaudevillian ethos that has come to be associated with Juneteenth, a holiday that has been sporadically celebrated across the country.
In an interview with the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, Margaret Kimberley, the executive editor of Black Agenda Report, said that the spontaneous uprisings that followed Floyd’s murder, while massive, were politically immature and combined with the 2020 presidential election season to compel politicians to “do something.”
The result, she said, is this amorphous national holiday that does not require Americans to reflect on our history, nor does it shine a light on the way forward.
“I feel like I am being a killjoy,” Kimberley said, “ but Juneteenth really does elevate Black people in this phony way…similar to elections that only require Americans to vote but not to engage democracy in any meaningful way.”
She added, “And this allows CEOs who exploit working people to act like they are doing something when that is not actually the case. Juneteenth should be an opportunity to talk about hard truths rather than selling watermelon salad… It has to be about elevating our history.”
She paused, then added, “Freedom is so illusory here in this country.”
On a long Facebook thread exploring the Juneteenth holiday, the activist Waciuri expounded on the subject. “It seems like Blk people are more willing to buy than struggle to get free… These aren’t just holidays…and it shouldn’t be reduced to simply buying…”
“Consumerism is not the path to liberation and Blk business isn’t either… Our people didn’t struggle…die…bleed and all of that only for our people to be stuck on this wave… It’s pitiful really.”
An African American woman in Oakland summed it up on Facebook: “Commodification of everything is America’s business model and national religion. Several annual celebrations —Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Kwanzaa, etc.—have been so commodified, original meaning has all but disappeared.
It is the American way.”
Jon Jeter is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, who has also served stints at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and The Washington Post, among others.