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Protecting Juneteenth from the Jaws of Consumer Capitalism

Published by on June 22, 2023

Now that we’ve had a couple of years of the Juneteenth holiday, I have some observations to share. President Joe Biden signed Juneteenth into law as a federal holiday in 2021. If we don’t grab the reigns of this run-away horse, descendants of enslaved Africans risk losing the relevancy and potency of this piece of our history. We need to build a mass-based popular education program around Juneteenth for Black people firstly and for others, secondarily.

Similar to the Emancipation Proclamation, many of our people didn’t get the word about Juneteenth becoming a holiday. I just ran into a friend over the weekend and reminded him that the post office branches and banks would be closed on Monday. Although he knew about Juneteenth, my friend missed the memo about it becoming a U.S. holiday.

The rapid proliferation of Juneteenth celebrations is a legitimate cause for concern. I’m overjoyed that my people are embracing the holiday – and with such enthusiasm. We have to be mindful of consumer capitalism and how it monetizes any and everything that can be profitable – just as the economic system did with our Black bodies. Unless we’re overprotective of this holiday, Black people will see the encroaching commercialism reduce the meaning of this powerful day. We don’t need a Juneteenth sale to get 20% off a pair of $500 Gucci sunglasses so that we can look cool at a celebration.

Black people and their allies must never let the celebration get separated from the “why” of the holiday. However as we choose to celebrate Juneteenth, it should always lift up the time in this country’s history when Black men, women and children were chattel slavery and endured the most savage form of captivity ever recorded in the U.S. Their valiant and courageous struggle for freedom and humanity must be at the core of those celebrations. Doing so doesn’t ignore the enduring trauma of this historical period but puts the heroism and perseverance into proper context. This is an opportunity to project the institution of slavery accurately in a mainstream way and connect it directly with the demand for reparations.

Make no mistake about it, Black people celebrating Juneteenth is an act of self-determination. Many of us embraced the holiday long before it was sanctioned by the government. The people in Galveston, Texas have been celebrating it since 1865. In St. Louis, a group called Sabayet has been the primary organizers of the local Juneteenth for 17 years.

As a member of the CAP, we were the first to celebrate Kwanzaa in St. Louis back in 1971. CAP chapters popularized the Black holiday amidst the slings and arrows of pro-Christmas Black folks who thought we were trying to replace their Christian holiday. St. Louis also celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King long before it became a federal holiday. Black St. Louis may be backward about a number of things, but we don’t play around with our Black holidays.

This is the real-life practice of Kujichagulia, self-determination. As Black people, we determine what is best for us, we define our own reality and future. Juneteenth is a time to talk about the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa and how to operationalize the principles 24/7. It will go a long way in how we treat one another, how our neighborhoods look and how the power structure responds to our very existence.

Juneteenth, Freedom Day Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day – whatever we chose to call it on any given day – must be connected to our struggle for Black Liberation. No different from our other Black holidays, MLK Day, African Liberation Day (ALD), Kwanzaa week, it is a time of reflection about our progress as a people. We must recommit to our liberation especially at a time when racist white people and their colored lackies are erasing our histories, dislocating us from our neighborhoods and disproportionately poisoning the water, air and soil where we live.

It must be a time to educate the masses of our people about the simple, yet important things they can do to de-colonize our minds and become liberated humans in our own struggle for political power, economic justice and cultural dignity. Acts like joining an organization working for liberation, like volunteering a couple of hours at a youth center, like giving a helping hand to a formerly incarcerated person, like signing someone up to vote, like writing a letter to encourage your elected officials to do right by Black people, like participating in a protest to stop or advance an issue impacting us.

Yes, let’s go all out for Juneteenth, wrapping ourselves in the red, black and green. But Black people should understand we must fight like hell to preserve the sanctity of the day by knowing the history and making sure others respect the history. This is critical to addressing the form-shaping racial inequities that shape the lives of Black people in America.


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