It did not last long.
June 16 has only been a national holiday for a year. But when it comes to commercialization—trivialization—it’s already as American as Christmas.
Get in properly! Get your merch!
Here’s some of what’s for sale online to celebrate the June 19th celebrations, which honor the liberation of the last slave-held Americans in 1865.
Juneteenth Running Shoes: $59.99. Juneteenth Bottled Water: $3.49. Juneteenth T-Shirt: $24.99. Juneteenth Baseball Cap: $5.99. Men’s Celebrate Juneteenth Necklace: $39. Juneteenth wristwatch: $165. June 16 Hoodie: $47.95. June 16 pin: $2.39. Juneteenth Silicone Wristbands: Pack of 10, $12.99. Juneteenth Hand Fan – Pack of 25, $19.95.
And don’t forget to enjoy a scoop of the delicious “Celebration Edition” Juneteenth Ice Cream, “swirled red velvet and cheesecake flavor” that caused a furore when it appeared in Walmart freezers last month — and just as quickly disappeared, leaving Walmart Pain from allegations of tone deafness.
“We have received feedback that some items have caused concern for some of our customers, and we sincerely apologize,” Walmart said in an official statement. “We are reviewing our range and will remove items where appropriate.”
In addition to the ice, they also removed plastic dishes and napkins that read, “This is freedom for me.”
What is “appropriate” for Juneteenth and what is not? That concern is an undercurrent this year as cities, churches and civic organizations prepare for the nation’s second annual anniversary on June 19.
“Year two, and it’s already being commercially hijacked,” said Randy Glover, co-producer with Damien “Chee Chee” Harris of Bergen County’s Juneteenth event, which begins Sunday noon at Overpeck County Park.
Last year surprised everyone. When June 16 was abruptly declared a federal holiday on June 17 – just two days before zero hour – most were busy celebrating the big victory.
Cheers to our newest national holiday! Hooray for another day off – the first since Martin Luther King Jr.’s day in 1983! And kudos, too, to groups like the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, which have been promoting the idea for decades.
More:Ready to celebrate our new National Day? Here comes June 16th
The media, meanwhile, has had their hands full explaining what Juneteenth is.
Last year, much of mainstream America learned for the first time that June 16 has been a regional holiday since the late 1800s — a celebration of the big moment in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, when the last of the enslaved African Americans learned that they were were free. A second Independence Day to complete what July 4, 1776 left undone.
Of course, some would say it’s still undone. “Free-ish since 1865” is a popular message on a Juneteenth t-shirt.
And now… come to the marketing opportunities! If July 4th means red, white, and blue popsicles, Easter means chocolate bunnies, and President’s Day means car sales, then surely June 16 is a cash cow waiting to be milked.
But should it be? Many who have worked so hard to get June 16 on the federal calendar don’t like the idea of it being marketed like frozen waffles.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword to give Juneteenth so much attention,” said Darnise C. Martin, professor of African American history and religion at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
“It’s caught up in the commodification machinery,” Martin said. “Right now, our entire western culture is starving for meaningful rituals. Not everything is consumable.”
She noticed the danger signs last summer, she said, when she spotted “June sales” on HSN and QVC, two of television’s top shopping networks. “You’re going to see that at every retailer,” she predicted. “It’s as American as apple pie to make yourself a commodity. The ball is already rolling.”
But is it a public holiday?
Some don’t even believe that “holiday” or “celebration” is the right word for June 16th. It’s a celebration – which means, like a church service, a certain amount of respect is due.
“This is not a holiday,” said Steven Williams, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. “The Fourth of July is a holiday. That’s a mindset.”
Central, he says, is the idea of economic self-sufficiency.
June 16th celebrates the end of slavery. But how free is an American who does not own the product of his labor? “Ujamaa” – cooperative economy – is the fourth principle of Kwanzaa. It applies equally to Juneteenth.
“Commerce has its place,” Glover said. “But right now it’s about building community, building economic power.”
How much of the Juneteenth items now available online are made by black-owned companies?
And how much of the money generated goes back into the community?
In other words, the question isn’t just whether making money off Juneteenth is the right thing to do. The question is who – if so – should make the money?
“It’s our own culture,” Martin said. “This is about keeping dollars in our own communities.”
The Walmart case is instructive.
The ice cream carton featured the image of the Juneteenth flag created in 1997 by activist Ben Haith of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation. It is protected by copyright.
But the ice cream’s marketers were never given permission to use it — or even sought it — Williams said.
More:The location of the Paterson Underground Railroad receives a prestigious recognition from the Park Service
More:How the Black Press Changed America for the Better
“They just thought there was something out there,” he said. “This blatant disregard is a prime example of what is going wrong. You didn’t check it. When you do business with us, you must include us, our workforce and workforce. We deserve the respect. The flag is protected by copyright. Get permission.”
And there’s more. Critics say Walmart’s Juniteenth ice cream is a rip-off of the Red Velvet Cheesecake flavor from Creamalicious, a Black-owned company (available at Target). The only difference: profits from the Walmart imitation brand went into the pockets of Walmart Inc.
“When Walmart came out with the ice cream, they were just trying to make money,” said Mofalc Meinga, president and founder of Frederick Douglass Juneteenth Celebration Inc. in Jersey City.
“There was nothing in it except buying a product,” he said. “It was purely commercial.”
Things like this, Martin says, worry many in the community that Juneteenth could be co-opted by outsiders — well-intentioned or not. When June 16, 2021 became a national holiday, not everyone was thrilled.
“Some people on social media were like, ‘Hey, do we really want this? That’s like inviting white people over for a barbecue,'” Martin said.
In Little Rock AR, she notes, there was outrage this year when flyers were distributed inviting the community to a “Soul Food Festival and Market in June.” Your hosts were pictured on the flyer: “Rex Nelson, Heather Baker, David Bazzel”. Everything white.
“Of course, they were all dragged through social media,” Martin said. “The failure here, the lack of awareness, that’s what offends non-white people. How do you do that?”
Should non-blacks attend Juneteenth at all? Many would say yes: learning is part of it. Just don’t confuse who is the guest and who is the host. “It’s not your place to welcome it us,” as the commissioner says in “Doctor Zhivago”.
“When you come to the cookout and you’re trying to adapt, you bring with you a colonizing mentality,” Martin said.
So if Juneteenth isn’t about buying and selling, how should it be celebrated?
Flag raising, jazz performances, storytelling, parades and African craft and dance workshops are some of the ways many local towns celebrate the occasion.
Mamaroneck, New York celebrates June 19 at 4:00 p.m. with a musical performance featuring lyrics by Langston Hughes, Marcus Amaker, Dudley Randall and others. New Rochelle will feature the Bokandeye African American Dance Theater, Juneteenth Flag Raising and African Marketplace on June 19th. Hamilton, New Jersey will host a Black Business Expo on June 18th. Camden is hosting jazz soul artist Jeff Bradshaw on June 18th. An African Culture and Family Festival will be held at Berry Lane Park in Jersey City on June 18th with live entertainment and an African marketplace.
write on the wall
In Jersey City – as well as in some other cities – copies of General Order No. 3 are posted (with permission) on the doors of churches, mosques and synagogues.
This is the original 1865 proclamation read to the residents of Galveston on June 19th. “People are informed that, pursuant to a proclamation of the United States Executive Branch, all slaves are free. This entails an absolute equality of personal rights and property rights between former masters and slaves.”
Placing a statement on a church door is not new. But as Martin Luther once showed, it can be a powerful gesture.
“I just printed some out,” Meinga said. “We’ll probably have 25 to 30 in Jersey City. We’re still working on it. Right now we need to spread the word.”
Another way to celebrate June 16 is to celebrate the true wealth of the community. no things Persons.
That’s what Bergen County’s Juneteenth event, Juneteenth: Time for a Conversation, is all about.
Food, fun and entertainment, definitely. Nat Adderley Jr. and his quartet, WBLS’ Doc Martin, Dance Evolution and Selah’s Caribbean Vibes & Band will perform at Overpeck’s Amphitheater.
There will be speakers, including well-known activists Dr. Arnold Brown and Rev. Herbert Daughtry, and controversial educator Dr. Leonard Jeffries.
But in a way, the main business of the day will be celebrating the local achievers — the people giving back to the community. Even more, to the world.
Among this year’s honorees: Beverly Lee of The Shirelles, Principal of Englewood, Lamarr Thomas, STEM teacher Janel F. Johnston, Educator Selene Lewis, WBLS radio icon Debi Jackson and the late Vaughn Harper, jazz great Nat Adderley Jr. the late great photographer Chuck Stewart, news anchors Pat Battle and Lori Stokes, the family of Phillip Pannell, whose tragic death led to police reforms in Teaneck, and many others.
They are what the Juneteenth is really about.
“Sometimes you’re sitting on top of a gold mine and you don’t even know there’s a gold mine there,” Glover said.
“You have these treasures that strengthen the community — not just for now, but for the future,” he said. “These people are really influencing the community. It’s not just about the now. It’s about training future leaders.”
Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful accounts of how you spend your free time, subscribe or activate your digital account today.