June 19, 1865, is a date in our nation’s history that all Americans should know about but haven’t, until recently. It was the day the last enslaved African-Americans were notified about their emancipation, following the end of the Civil War. The kicker? It came two whole years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
That’s two years of continued abuse and torture at the hands of white slave owners who knew of the emancipation; but kept their scheme going until the news reached Galveston, Texas.
Juneteenth became a national holiday in 2021 following the racial uprisings of 2020 that were sparked by the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. In the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic that the world was still trying to understand, thousands of Black Americans and allies took to the streets demanding justice and police accountability.
What did we receive instead?
A national holiday and a failed attempt at police reform legislation. That’s the thing about America—this country would rather provide a holiday and a Maya Angelou-emblazoned coin than voting rights, police reform, economic investment, and K-12 education taught outside of the lens of whiteness.
The Juneteenth federal holiday was announced at the very same time Republicans were escalating their crusade against “critical race theory.” It was the most American move yet—creating a federal holiday but not designing a curriculum that teaches what that holiday means—all because of the radical right’s war against consciousness, otherwise known as “wokeness.”
As with any holiday in the U.S., what follows is the mass commercialization by corporate America, squeezing any real sentiment or understanding dry in order to increase their bottom line. What does it mean for corporations to commodify the Juneteenth holiday, extracting once again from a community they choose not to invest in? It means taking our money in one hand, and supporting candidates that vote against our access and equity with the other.
The real bottom line? Corporate America needs to find more meaningful ways to honor this sacred holiday than selling ice cream wrapped in Kente cloth and African colors.
Corporations like Walmart could put their money where their branding is, and contribute to underserved communities…
What the Black community has always needed is the resources that were brutally extracted from our ancestors with their free labor which built this nation. We need our neighborhoods, schools, and businesses to be reinvested in—not as charity, but as reparations for the generational trauma and damage inflicted upon us.
This, however, is the conversation that America doesn’t want to have because doing so would force a level of accountability that white America would prefer not reckon with, let alone actually acknowledge.
Corporations can and should play a vital role in the restoration of the Black community and other marginalized communities. Instead of lining the pockets of their CEOs—whose pay has reached record levels as the rest of us struggle with the effects of inflation and supply chain disruptions—corporations could instead invest in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), creating a pipeline for the next generation of C-suite executives.
Corporations like Walmart could put their money where their branding is, and contribute to underserved communities like the one in Buffalo whose sole grocery store in the Black community became a scene of a vicious white supremacist hate crime. Why was Tops grocery such an important hub in the Buffalo community? Because for decades it had been outright ignored by both politicians and corporations.
There are way too many communities, like Buffalo, where the largely Black communities have a dearth of grocery stores, community centers, banks, and tree-lined streets with regular sanitation pickup. Instead, they’re dotted with predatory lenders and liquor stores.
This hasn’t happened by accident, nor is it a “moral failing” of Black people. It’s the product of racist red-lining and disinvestment. But this doesn’t have to be our curse forever.
If corporate America wants to celebrate Juneteenth and honor the legacy of enslaved Africans that built this country, those companies need to shift their thinking from one of extraction to investment.
What would it look like to make public commitments to diversifying their workforce from the assembly lines to the C-suites? What would it look like for more companies to do what Sephora did, and devote physical space in their stores for Black-owned health and beauty lines?
There are a myriad of ways that corporate America can engage with Juneteenth that isn’t about commodification. But it means making a promise, and actually delivering.