In the Summer of 2021, the decision was made to make Juneteenth a nationally recognized
holiday. Juneteenth is the oldest known commemoration of the “official” end of slavery in the
United States dating back to June 19, 1865. Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon
Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that all enslaved
people were now free. African Americans with knowledge of Juneteenth, hold this date near and dear to their hearts. For many in the community, June 19th is their “Independence Day.” Major celebrations have happened across this country in the one hundred and fifty-seven years since. Individuals like Opal Lee, the “grandmother of Juneteenth” who fought for over 40 years to see Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday, and Rev. Ronald Myers, who was instrumental in the passage of legislation recognizing Juneteenth Independence Day in 45 states and the District of Columbia, worked tirelessly to make Juneteenth a holiday. However, they did not envision it as just another American holiday.
Recently, the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis received backlash for having a “Juneteenth
Watermelon Salad” available for purchase. The natural reaction to witnessing the picture would be to assume, that someone should have thought of how that would look to the public. Surely, someone would think of the connotation and stop this from happening. Full disclosure: I have worked as an advisor on the Children Museum’s “Power of Children” exhibition which highlights Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges and Ryan White. It is a tremendous museum and I and have profound respect for the organization. However, this sort of thing should not happen in cultural institutions or in for-profit businesses that look for ways to peddle t-shirts or ice cream. Because incidents like this are not alien to the Black community, the first assumption is to say these institutions do not have “our” people in decision making positions or at least inside the room to say: “Don’t do that!” However, if you examine the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis’ apology, they stated that:
“The team that made this selection included their staff members who based this choice of
food on their own family traditions. As we work to create a culture of empowerment and
inclusivity, we know there will be stumbles along the way.”
The issue is not always a result of Black people not being included in decision-making. In the
case of Juneteenth, we have to establish that our most recently recognized national holiday is
not one of trivial celebration, but a day that highlights that the quest for freedom is ongoing.
The inclusion of watermelon in this case is particularly jarring. The long-standing stereotype
associated with the Black community and that fruit is well-known and the notion that anyone
would not be aware of it is hard to fathom. What is less known, is the complexity of the history.
Watermelon was brought over from Africa by the enslaved and would later serve as a symbol of self-sufficiency for Black people after they were emancipated. The sight of Black people living off the profits of their land, angered individuals desperate to keep a racial “pecking order.” Soon, caricatures of Black people eating watermelon would be prevalent in southern
newspapers with the goal of undercutting the progress being made through farming the crop.
This created a harmful imagery that has affected how Black people engage with watermelon to this day. As we refer to the quote from the apology, it can be inferred that the team in question actually involved members of the Black community in the process. This underscores a key point in the myriad of instances where institutions have made this sort of misstep. The presence of Black people in decision-making spaces will not insulate organizations from these kinds of mistakes. Partially, because capitalizing on the opportunities of holidays will always be front of mind.
Every other holiday we have is accompanied by sales, specials, merchandise and ad
campaigns. Memorial Day furniture sales, Christmas decorations, Fourth of July fireworks and t-shirts…it is all commonplace. There was a defined trepidation from the Black community
regarding the potential commercialization of Juneteenth. There were some that did not want the designation for that exact reason. Shortly after President Biden signed the bill to make
Juneteenth a legal holiday, The Balchem Corporation filed paperwork to trademark “Juneteenth” on September 2, 2021. Balchem is a New York-based chemical company that “delivers customized ingredient systems and key minerals and nutrients for the food, supplement, and pharmaceutical markets. After the backlash from the Wal-Mart Juneteenth themed ice cream in May, Balchem pulled the application. We can categorize this as another attempt to capitalize off of Black culture. What is also true, is this incessant need to capitalize off holiday marketing. As Americans, we accept that national holidays will have a high degree of capitalism attached to them. We have become used to it. However, with the swift backlash and subsequent apologies associated with recent Juneteenth products, businesses and institutions must realize that there is no stomach to include Juneteenth in that marketing mix. Juneteenth is a date that Black people who are familiar with it, take very personally. I have been involved in some sort of Juneteenth Festival planning and implementation since 2001. My organization, the Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, which is the first town of self-governing formerly enslaved people in the United States, founded on Hilton Head Island in 1862, has presented a Juneteenth celebration since 2014, that brings people all over the Lowcountry and surrounding states to the area to celebrate freedom for all people. Folks fought for this date to be commemorated because this country must recognize all that has happened in the pursuit of freedom. Those enslaved people in Galveston, Texas back in 1865, had lived through unspeakable horrors before hearing the sweet words of emancipation. That memory and the impact that it has had on the community should not be regulated to “It’s the Freedom for Me” t-shirts made by corporations who just heard of Juneteenth on the news, after the bill was signed into law. Juneteenth deserves more than that. Juneteenth is the opportunity to debunk long-held racist tropes, and should be used to spotlight the ingenuity, resilience, and legacy of the enslaved. It should not be muddied by connection to century-long stereotypes and good old-fashioned capitalism. I am glad its recognized as a holiday, it’s just not THAT kind of holiday.
Ahmad Ward is the Executive Director of the Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park on Hilton Head Island, SC