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Juneteenth is now just another holiday – you can tell by the merch


Juneteenth is now just another holiday – you can tell by the merch

Jun 18, 2024 | 8:07 pm ET
By Elijah Pittman
Juneteenth is now just another holiday – you can tell by the merch
An unidentified man dances for a crowd at a 2022 Juneteenth celebration in Washington, D.C. Photo by Elijah Pittman.

Juneteenth has been unable to escape the inevitable – commercialization.

An online search for Juneteenth products brings up everything from T-shirts to temporary tattoos, flags to jewelry, wreaths to doormats. The dedicated Juneteenth shopper can find socks, golf balls, sunglasses, makeup bags, party favors and more.

For Baltimore community organizer and advocate Brian Sessions, that sort of merchandising is part of the  “controlling of the narrative” of the holiday by corporations.

“You take the focus off of emancipation for Africans who were in America who were mistreated and misused and were diminished,” Sessions said. “America has a way of doing that for the sake of upholding American exceptionalism.”

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when some of the last enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, received the news that slavery had been abolished more than two years earlier with the Jan. 1, 1863, signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. 

But even some of those enslaved people were not immediately freed — some were held until after a harvest and others held longer. Kentucky and Delaware didn’t end slavery until that December.

“That’s what a lot of people don’t know,” said Justin “Yaddiya” Johnson, a go-go music advocate and organizer of a large Juneteenth celebration in Washington, D.C., formerly known as Moechella.

“When people start to do things from a capitalist lens it always takes away from the real essence because nobody is really celebrating it properly or is presenting it properly,” Johnson said. “They present however they can to sell their products. All of these holidays get used to boost the economy.”

The holiday began as a simple local affair in south Texas to mark the anniversary of Juneteenth. It slowly spread to communities across the country. By the late 20th century, advocates were fighting to make it a national holiday. That goal was realized on June 17, 2021, when President Joe Biden signed the law making it the 11th, and newest, federal holiday.

But that mainstream success has soured for some.

Johnson pointed to Pride celebrations and Christmas as similar situations where capitalism has separated holidays from their origins. Jared Ball, a professor of Africana studies and communications at Morgan State University, explained how Juneteenth’s new mainstream presence was co-opted.

“Juneteenth is not an overt challenge to capital, or anti-Blackness, and white supremacy. It can be more or less easily manipulated,” Ball said. “It allows corporations to again manipulate a symbol, an image, an already unthreatening symbol and image … and not feel that they’re taking any risks.” 

Ball said the holiday’s new presence allows corporations to take ownership of it.

“They can take credit for it. They can say, ‘Ignore the fact that we’re the same country that enslaved you, but that we can take credit for getting rid of it. Even as we’ve produced really nothing more beneficial for you,’” he said. 

One of the most high-profile examples of Juneteenth marketing that backfired came two years ago, when Walmart released a Juneteenth-themed swirled red-velvet and cheesecake ice cream which they pulled after social media backlash. In published reports at the time,  the company said it pulled the ice cream off the shelves after getting “feedback that a few items caused concern for some of our customers and we sincerely apologize.”

Sessions said that Juneteenth messaging would be better if it was controlled by Black people.

“If you have us in totality controlling the narrative we are able to say, ‘Yes, we appreciate emancipation but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done,’” Sessions said. 

“That’s our packaging for Juneteenth. But when America has control over that, it’s [the message] that the work is finished,” he said.

– This story was updated on Wednesday, June 19, to correct the years for the original Juneteenth – it was in 1865 – and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation – on Jan. 1, 1863.