From vodka to Big Poppa Juneteenth shirts, the commodification of the Juneteenth holiday has sparked outrage and raised concerns over ownership and debasing a holiday celebrated for over 150 years.
Congress passed The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act in June 2021, making Juneteenth a federal holiday. Many people, even African Americans, were unfamiliar with the holiday, and its historical significance. As conversations about the annual celebration that started in Galveston, Texas picked up, the nation began to embrace its newest installment of a day of observation. At the same time, so did the corporatization of the day.
Leading into this year’s Juneteenth holiday, public outrage spiked when social media users began posting a Juneteenth Ice Cream being sold by Walmart through the Great Value private line. A partnership with Utah-based Balchem Corporation, it was also discovered that a trademark was taken out for the food enterprise.
“Lazy pandering by billion dollar corporations is the American way, I guess,” posted Kell Bell on her Tik Tok page, The Belle Kurve.
To intensify those who have called Walmart’s business agenda opportunistic, three of the flavors the Great Value ice cream promoted were similar to that of Chef Elizabeth Rogers, who has the only black-owned national ice cream brand, Creamalicious. All the while, the Ohio-based company has been asking its supporters to appeal to Walmart, Target and other grocery chains to place her ice cream in their stores.
“Freedmen, the Black Descendants of Persons enslaved in the United States, have been under invested . . . since the Civil War ended,” wrote Khansa T. Jones-Muhammad, Co-chair of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Assembly of American Slavery Descendants. NAASD is an organization that emerged from calls of reparations from movements that appeared after Ta Nehisi Coates released the famous article examining reparations after investigating racist practices in Chicago.
Jones-Muhammad faulted large corporations that chose to use the day to make money and disregard Black business owners who are descendants of those once enslaved. “Instead of finding [Black American] businesses to meet their needs and who have an understanding of how Juneteenth came to be, exploitation was chosen.”
However, criticism over Walmart’s promotion of a Juneteenth-themed ice cream forced the retailer to pull the product from shelves, and to stop the legal process. Added, another company called Juneteenth Joy, a black owned food venture, blocked Balchem’s attempts because it competed with their idea.
Now questions have been raised over companies filing for trademarks linked to the new federal holiday. Since 2020, almost 50 trademarks have been filed, either for the name Juneteenth, or a product with Juneteenth as part of its moniker. From Black Mamma Juneteenth named vodka to Nipsey Hussle-inspired, The Juneteenth Marathon. Even the hashtag, #Juneteenth is up for trademarking. And, it’s not just white companies. There are a range of black entrepreneurs, some who are African American and others who present as from immigrant backgrounds.
Between those ventures are tee shirt companies, educational services, festivals, fundraisers and beauty pageants. There’s even a company that provides political comedy about the celebration. ‘FREE ·ISH JUNETEENTH uses the discourse when the holiday was introduced as being a quasi-emancipation by critics.
The criticism of those re-appropriating the holiday for profit is directed to Black folk as well. “People are so used to Black American culture being for sale that they are treating Juneteenth like everything else in Black American culture, fine to disrespect and up for their own interpretation,” tweeted the founder of Velourit Brooke Sinclair when she criticized a Black firm using Juneteenth to market businesses.
Historically, Juneteenth centered public parades and festivals, or intimate gatherings celebrating the historical legislation that dismantled slavery. Also, it acknowledges the sordid history that enslaved Blacks in Texas discovered they had been emancipated, and were free for two-and-half years before being told. When Blacks heard the announcement in the town they broke out into several days of festivities. Notably, there were other emancipatory annual celebrations, like the annual visit to Washington D.C. by emancipated peoples on January 1, the day the proclamation was announced. However, Juneteenth is the last remaining one that held its identity.
Today, it has magnified to a host of celebratory gatherings, food events and meetups. Now, there is concern if its origins will be remembered. “I want Black people to love on each other more, we need it” explained Anthony Todd Jackson to Ark Republic. “I just want us to know that Juneteenth all goes back to our ancestors.”
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