It didn’t take long.
Juneteenth has been a national holiday for just one year. But when it comes to commercialization — trivialization — it’s already as American as Christmas.
Step right up! Get your merch!
Here is some of what’s for sale, online, to mark the June 19 observance that honors the freeing of the last Americans kept as slaves, in 1865.
Juneteenth running shoes: $ 59.99. Juneteenth water bottles: $ 3.49. Juneteenth T-shirt: $ 24.99. Juneteenth baseball cap: $ 5.99. Men’s Celebrate Juneteenth necklace: $ 39. Juneteenth wristwatch: $ 165. Juneteenth hoodie: $ 47.95. Juneteenth lapel pin: $ 2.39. bracelets: package of 10, $ 12.99. Juneteenth hand fans — package of 25, $ 19.95.
And don’t forget to enjoy a scoop of delicious “Celebration Edition” Juneteenth Ice Cream, “swirled red velvet and cheesecake flavor,” which caused an uproar when it appeared in Walmart freezer cases last month — and just as quickly disappeared, leaving Walmart smarting over accusations of tone-deafness.
“We received feedback that a few items caused concern for some of our customers and we sincerely apologize,” Walmart said, in an official statement. “We are reviewing our assortment and will remove items as appropriate.”
Among with the ice cream, they also removed plastic dinnerware and napkins bearing the legend: “It’s the freedom for me.”
Just what is, and is not, “appropriate” for Juneteenth? That concern is an undercurrent this year, as towns, churches and civic organizations gear up for the nation’s second annual June 19 jubilee.
“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 at noon Sunday at Overpeck County Park.
Last year caught everyone off guard. When Juneteenth was abruptly proclaimed a federal observance on June 17 — just two days before zero hour — most were busy just celebrating the big win.
Three cheers for our newest national holiday! Hurrah for a new day off — the first since Martin Luther King Jr. day in 1983! And a shout out, too, for groups like the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, which have been promoting the idea for decades.
More: More:Ready to celebrate our new national holiday? Here comes Juneteenth
The media, meanwhile, had its hands full just explaining what Juneteenth is.
Last year, for the first time, much of mainstream America learned that Juneteenth has been a regional holiday since the late 19th century — a celebration of the big moment in Galveston Texas on June 19, 1865, when the last enslaved African Americans learned that they were free. A second Independence Day, to complete what July 4, 1776 left und one.
Some, of course, would say it is still undone. “Free-ish since 1865” reads a popular Juneteenth T-shirt message.
And now… bring on the marketing opportunities! If July 4 means red white and blue popsicles, Easter means chocolate bunnies, and Presidents Day means car sales, then surely Juneteenth is a cash cow waiting to be milked.
But should it be? Many who worked so hard to put Juneteenth on the federal calendar don’t relish the idea of its being marketed like frozen waffles.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword to have so much attention to Juneteenth,” said Darnise C. Martin, professor of African American history and religion at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
“It’s become caught up in the commodification machine,” Martin said. “Right now, our whole Western culture is starving for meaningful ritual. Not everything is consumable.”
She noticed the danger signs last summer, she said, when she spotted “Juneteenth sales” on HSN and QVC, two of TV’s top shopping networks. “You’re going to see this at every retailer,” she predicted. “It’s as American” as apple pie to commodify. The ball is already rolling. “
But is it a holiday?
Some don’t even think “holiday” or “celebration” is the right word for Juneteenth. It’s an observance — which means that, like a church service, a certain amount of respect is in order.
“This is not a holiday,” said Steven Williams, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. “The fourth of July is a holiday. This is a way of thought.”
Central, he says, is the idea of economic self-sufficiency.
Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery. But how free is any American, who doesn’t own the product of their labor? “Ujamaa” — cooperative economics — is the fourth principle of Kwanzaa. It apples equally to Juneteenth.
“Commercialism has its place,” Glover said. “But right now, this is about building the community, building economic power.”
How much of the Juneteenth merchandise, now available online, is created by Black-owned companies?
And how much of the money it generates is flowing back into the community?
The question, in other words, is not merely whether it’s right to make a buck off of Juneteenth. The question is who — if so — should be making that buck?
“This is our own culture,” Martin said. “This is about keeping dollars within our own communities.”
The Walmart case is telling.
On the ice cream carton was incorporated the image of the Juneteenth flag, created in 1997 by activist Ben Haith of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation. It is copyrighted.
But the marketers of the ice cream never got — or even sought — permission to use it, Williams said.
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“They just thought it was something out there,” he said. “That blatant disregard is a prime example of what’s wrong. They didn’t check. When you deal with us, you have to include us, our work force and labor. We deserve the respect. The flag is copyrighted. Get permission. “
And there’s more. The Walmart “Juneteenth” ice cream, critics say, was a ripoff of the “red velvet cheesecake” flavor made by Creamalicious, a Black-owned company (it’s available at Target). Only difference: the profits of Walmart’s knockoff brand went into the pockets of Walmart Inc.
“When Walmart came out with the ice cream, they were just trying to make a buck,” said Mofalc Meinga, president and founder of the Frederick Douglass Juneteenth Celebration Inc. in Jersey City.
“There was nothing in it except the purchase of a product,” he said. “It was strictly commercial.”
It’s this kind of thing, Martin says, that makes many in the community concerned that Juneteenth could be co-opted by outsiders — well-intentioned or otherwise. When Juneteenth became a national holiday in 2021, not everyone was thrilled.
“Some people on social media were saying,’Hey, do we really want this? This is like inviting white people to the cookout,'” Martin said.
In Little Rock AR, she notes, there was outrage this year when flyers went out inviting the community to a “Juneteenth Soul Food Festival and Market.” Pictured on the flyer were your hosts, “Rex Nelson, Heather Baker, David Bazzel.” All white.
“Of course, they all got dragged through the 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-Black folks even participate in Juneteenth? Many would say yes: Learning is part of what it’s all about. Just don’t confuse who is the guest and who is the host. “It is not for you to welcome us, “ as the commissar says in “Doctor Zhivago.”
“If you come to the cookout and try to appropriate, then you are bringing a colonizing mentality,” Martin said.
So if Juneteenth isn’t about buying and selling, how should should it be celebrated?
Flag raisings, jazz performances, storytelling, parades, and African crafts and dance workshops are some of the ways many local towns are marking the occasion.
Mamaroneck, New York, will be celebrating with a 4 pm June 19 music performance featuring texts by Langston Hughes, Marcus Amaker, Dudley Randall and others. New Rochelle will feature the Bokandeye African American Dance Theater, a raising of the Juneteenth Flag, and an African Marketplace on June 19. Hamilton, New Jersey, will be hosting a June 18 Black Business Expo. Camden will be showcasing jazz-soul artist Jeff Bradshaw on June 18. An African Cultural Arts and Family Festival, including live entertainment and an African marketplace , will be held at Berry Lane Park in Jersey City on June 18.
Writing on the wall
In Jersey City — and some other towns as well — copies of General Order No. 3 are being posted (with permission) on the doors of churches, mosques and synagogues.
This is the original 1865 proclamation that was read out to the people of Galveston on June 19. “The people are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves.”
Posting a statement on a church door is not new. But as as Martin Luther once demonstrated, it can be a powerful gesture.
“I have some printed up right now,” Meinga said. “We’ll probably have 25 to 30 in Jersey City. We’re still moving on it. Right now we need to get the word out.”
Another way to observe Juneteenth is to celebrate the real wealth of the community. Not things. People.
That’s what Bergen County’s Juneteenth event, dubbed “Juneteenth: Time for a Conversation,” is all about.
Food, fun, and entertainment, for sure. Nat Adderley Jr. and his Quartet, Doc Martin from WBLS, Dance Evolution, and Selah’s Caribbean Vibes & Band will be performing at the Overpeck amphitheater.
There will be speakers: including well-known activists Dr. Arnold Brown and Rev. Herbert Daughtry and controversial educator Dr. Leonard Jeffries.
But in some ways the main business of the day will be to celebrate the local achievers — the people who give back to the community. More, to the world.
Among this year’s honorees: Beverly Lee of The Shirelles, Englewood principal Lamarr Thomas, STEM teacher Janel F. Johnston, educator Selene Lewis, WBLS radio icons Debi Jackson and the late Vaughn Harper, jazz great Nat Adderley Jr., the late great photographer Chuck Stewart, network 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’re what Juneteenth is really about.
“Sometimes you’re sitting on a gold mine and you don’t even know there’s a gold mine there,” Glover said.
“You have these treasures that are strengthening the community — not just for now, but for the future,” he said. “These people are really influencing the community. It’s not just about now. It’s about grooming future leaders.”
Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
Twitter: @ jimbeckerman1