Juneteenth is around the corner once again, and now that it is a national holiday, it has prompted complaints from some who feel it has already become commercialized by greedy corporations salivating over the opportunity to cash in on an ugly part of America’s history. But wasn’t this the inevitable outcome from the beginning?
Celebrated on June 19, Juneteenth was largely unknown until about two years ago, when it began receiving more recognition in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Last year, Congress voted to make it a federally-recognized holiday. That is when the commercialization truly started – but now, it appears the issue has become even more pronounced.
Major corporations have come under fire for promoting Juneteenth-themed products in the leadup to the celebration of the holiday. Many are backing off of their campaigns after stinging rebukes from the national peanut gallery.
On Tuesday, Walmart apologized for marketing “Celebration Edition: Juneteenth Ice Cream” under its Great Value label. “Share and celebrate African-American culture, emancipation and enduring hope,” the label on the ice cream read. The company stated it would stop selling the flavor after a fierce backlash from people on social media. As it turns out, many aren’t on board with the notion that eating red velvet-flavored frozen dairy products is the best way to commemorate a milestone in America’s journey away from slavery.
“Juneteenth holiday marks a celebration of freedom and independence,” Walmart said in a statement. “However, we received feedback that a few items caused concern for some of our customers and we sincerely apologize. We are reviewing our assortment and will remove items as appropriate.”
Matthew Delmont, a historian at Dartmouth University, told Yahoo Finance that the commercialization of the holiday distracts from the ultimate purpose of the commemoration.
“It is hard not to worry that Juneteenth will be watered down or distorted now that it is a federal holiday,” he said. “Having this date on the national calendar every year offers an opportunity to talk honestly about our nation’s history and to come together in community to celebrate the generations of Black Americans who have fought for freedom and equality.”
Kevin Cokley, chair of the educational psychology department at the University of Texas, said, “If Walmart did not think the commercialization of Juneteenth would not be profitable they would not have created Juneteenth ice cream. Period.”
He added: “[T]he true meaning of Juneteenth can easily be lost through consumerism and widespread consumption.”
But Walmart isn’t the only one to feel the wrath from consumers. Dollar Tree also caught some criticism for promoting a Juneteenth-themed line of party supplies and tableware. The products came in green, red, and yellow instead of the usual red, white, and blue. While the company has not publicly apologized for the marketing decision, it has removed the products from its official Twitter page.
But this is not the first time corporations have tried using Juneteenth to earn more profit. Last year, they jumped on the holiday’s newfound fame to engage in the type of virtue signaling that has become all too common among major corporations nowadays. Politico reported:
“That’s when a slew of companies — in an effort to get more woke — went to great lengths to show their support for the Black community, pledging commitments to racial equity. Household names like Best Buy, Twitter vowed to make June 19th company holidays. (This newsroom was no exception.) Others, like Airbnb, pledged to donate half a million dollars to the NAACP and to the Black Lives Matter Foundation.”
Anyone surprised by the commercialization of Juneteenth has probably not paid much attention to how America – and even the rest of the western world – treats major holidays. Indeed, Juneteenth has joined St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, Cinco de Mayo, and Christmas in the pantheon of money-making endeavors. Despite coming to national prominence only a couple of years ago, it has already passed this rite of passage and become a widely-accepted tradition.
Nevertheless, there is something to be said for the contention that America’s tendency to capitalize on these types of observances takes away from their true meaning. Juneteenth was created to celebrate when slaves in Texas finally got the news that they would be free two years after the conclusion of the Civil War. It is intended to remember how the country inched closer to completely repudiating the “peculiar institution” and to finally living up to the values on which it was founded. Ice cream and party supplies seem hardly sufficient to illustrate the significance of this bit of American history.
In the end, Juneteenth will be just as commercialized as the others held sacred by the public. But this does not mean those who understand the gravity of the history cannot continue to remind the nation why it is so important to the evolution of the United States.