Photo of the Juneteenth flag. Source: Wiki Commons

Juneteenth Deserves Honor, Not Hollow Celebration

Juneteenth's federal status rings hollow amid government inaction on systemic racism, and corporate commercialization. Honest discussions on racial injustice are needed over hollow celebrations as we fail to uphold Juneteenth’s ideals of true freedom and equity.

3 mins read

Mia Boykin

This year marks the 158th anniversary of Juneteenth, a profoundly important date commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, finally bringing the news of freedom to one of the last remaining enslaved populations over two years after the order was issued. 

Juneteenth is a critical touchstone in American history, representing the delayed but necessary progress toward liberty and justice for all. To many, Juneteenth is America’s second independence day, to Black people, it was the first.

It’s important to make this distinction because the experience of Black Americans up until this point, was not one of personhood, but property. The independence day which is heavily celebrated on July 4th, did not apply to Black Americans and Africans who were enslaved. To the enslaved, July 4th simply changed their owner’s nationality from British to American. 

Juneteenth celebration from 1900 in Texas. Source: Wiki Commons

Juneteenth was first celebrated in Galveston, Texas in 1866 and has been a tradition for many Black families since. The popularity surrounding the holiday waned until 2020, when conversations around race were ignited due to the murder of George Floyd, and in 2021, Joe Biden recognized it as a federal holiday.

But just because offices and schools are closed on this day, doesn’t mean that much true celebration is occurring. True honoring of Juneteenth is not to just celebrate the freedom of those enslaved but to also grieve and reckon with the haunting legacies of their suffering. 

Juneteenth reminds us of the immense suffering and injustice of slavery, while also celebrating the perseverance of the human spirit of Black Americans. Every American, regardless of race, should reflect on this day and honor the long, difficult road to making the universal ideals declared in 1776 a reality. And we are still not at that point.

With the recent court decision on Fearless Fund’s awards to Black women, conversations surrounding healthcare racial issues following abortion bans across states, and the dismissal of a reparations case for Tulsa Massacre survivors, the United States government is still not listening to Black people. 

So how much celebration can truly occur when the United States government is actively ignoring Black voices? Well, as long as you order your Juneteenth party supplies and t-shirts on time, you will surely be able to celebrate. 

That was sarcasm, but in recent years, there has been a deeply troubling trend of corporations capitalizing on and commercializing Juneteenth for-profit and brand marketing. In 2022, Walmart received backlash for its offensive Juneteenth ice cream flavor. Last year, a banner for Juneteenth featured solely a white couple in Greenville, South Carolina.  The commodification of this solemn day of remembrance is enormously disrespectful to its origins and dilutes the recognition of this history. 

This commercialization in combination with the U.S. government’s continued systemic oppression, can make the holiday feel hollow. While the nation claims to celebrate the freedom of Black people, many are still underneath the boot of the government and cries for help are being ignored. 

Celebrating Juneteenth Wholefully

Juneteenth should be a moment for frank discussions about America’s profit off of enslavement and the continued work needed to address systemic racism – not an excuse for companies to hawk merchandise or engage in performative activism. We must reject the reductive corporatization of this historic day and recenter its civic and educational importance.

Juneteenth parade in Denver, Colorado from 1983. Source: Wiki Commons

Additionally, the marketing surrounding Juneteenth emphasizes the holiday as a black one, and not a national one. Juneteenth is not only for Black Americans to recognize, instead, Juneteenth is an important touchstone in American history, not just Black history. The holiday signifies more than Black progress, but also the complexities around race and labor and where those legacies lie today. 

True honor for Juneteenth means having uncomfortable but honest dialogues, supporting Black scholars and museums, and elevating Black voices and experiences year-round. But besides that, celebrating Juneteenth means having fun with your family, talking to your elders, and building bonds that have gotten our community through tough times before. For this reason, TANTV curated Juneteenth events to attend, four of which being museums, where attendees can educate themselves and others on the legacies of enslavement.

Juneteenth means taking substantive action to ensure equity and inclusion, not just cynical marketing ploys or hollow celebrations. Let us celebrate Juneteenth’s spirit of perseverance, resilience, and hope – not cheapen it with celebrations without action. 

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