President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in 1863 with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation or at least that’s the lie we were taught growing up. However, despite being portrayed as the Great White Savior, Lincoln’s signature did not mark the end of slavery nor the beginning of freedom for slaves. Although the proclamation claimed that “all persons held as slaves” shall be free, this was not the case for all enslaved people. And, as Fannie Lou Hamer said, “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” So, because a quarter of a million Black people were still enslaved in Texas at the time, no one was free. The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1st, 1863, but the news was not shared in Texas until June 19th 1865 – almost 2 and a half years later. Two and a half years of picking cotton in the sweltering heat. Two and a half years of Black women being raped by slave masters. Two and a half years of Black men being whipped and having to live with permanent scars on their back, if they lived at all. Two and a half years of terror, trauma, and tragedy, which the Black community still experiences almost two centuries later.
Juneteenth Becomes a Federal Holiday
On June 18th 2021, more than one hundred and fifty years after the emancipation of the last of the enslaved people in Texas, President Biden declared that June 19th would become a federal holiday known as Juneteenth Day of Observance. According to him, it is “a day in which we remember the moral stain and terrible toll of slavery on our country,” which he referred to as “America’s original sin.” As described by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, one of the most influential proponents of the Juneteenth bill, “Juneteenth honors the end of the 400 years of suffering African Americans endured under slavery and celebrates the legacy of perseverance that has become the hallmark of the African American community.” Black activists and politicians advocated for Juneteenth to become a national holiday to hold this country accountable for its actions against Black people and to prevent more miseducation and misinformation about our country’s history of slavery. Juneteenth also acknowledges the dopeness of the Black community and our incredible ability to overcome insurmountable obstacles. However, while the intention behind the holiday may have been noble, its long path to implementation has been anything but.
Capitalism Strikes Again
Holidays may be presented as opportunities to honor and celebrate a particular moment or milestone, but what they often turn into is a financial free-for-all. Unfortunately, Juneteenth is not the exception. Companies who have never shown any interest in the Black community are suddenly rolling out the red carpet of what they advertise as “limited edition” Juneteenth items, which is ironic given the fact that their interest in us is also limited. Take Walmart, for example, one of the biggest American corporations, recently released a new ice cream in “honor” of Juneteenth, packaged in a black, red, and green container – the colors that symbolize Black liberation – to really sell their “support” for our community. After releasing the limited edition ice cream and getting DRAGGED on social media — which they deserved — the company pulled the ice cream and issued an apology. An apology they probably borrowed from the Ikea in Atlanta who also went all in with the racist stereotypes and sold watermelon and fried chicken for Juneteenth in 2021. Not only are these corporations capitalizing off of our experiences, but they’re also insulting the Black community in the process. I understand that companies are always going to try to make money, but there are other ways to go about it.
First, they can hire a Black consultant to come up with ways that truly celebrate the meaning of Juneteenth. Second, they can have a detailed plan of how they will use their profits to support the Black community. And most importantly, they can use their power and influence to encourage others to directly support Black-owned businesses.
In addition to the performative allyship displayed by companies who only “celebrate” Juneteenth for financial gain, the holiday is also used as a form of political pacification, which this country often does to the Black community. We have consistently advocated for the dismantling of white supremacy and an end to systemic racism, but, instead of life-saving policies, we are thrown performative bones in the form of Maya Angelou on a quarter (which she shares with a slave-owner) and Harriet Tubman on a $20 bill, which has yet to actually happen. These things aren’t inherently negative, but without policy and reform, they’re hollow. They are presented to us as “progress” while our people are still being shot in the streets, and it’s hard to see them as anything more than an attempt to pacify us with the hopes that it will lessen our activism. Spoiler alert – it won’t.
As someone who does not celebrate the 4th of July because I believe that doing so is an insult to everyone who was still enslaved at the time of this country’s ‘birth’, Juneteenth is very important to me. And beyond the day itself, which the Black community has celebrated long before Biden’s proclamation, it becoming a national holiday is important because it challenges the false narrative that has been, and continues to be, taught in schools. I also love Juneteenth because I am a fan of any and every opportunity to honor and celebrate those who came before me. I believe wholeheartedly in fulfilling my ancestor’s wildest dreams, but I can assure you that Juneteenth ice cream wasn’t one of them.