J. Pharoah Doss: The Walmart Juneteenth controversy

by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier

In January 2021 headlines announced 20 must-have items from Walmart’s MLK day sale, and there were no complaints about the corporate exploitation of MLK day. Besides, Coretta Scott King always said MLK day wasn’t a Black holiday, it was a people’s holiday.

That June, President Joe Biden signed a bill that made Juneteenth a federal holiday. Biden was Vice President during the Obama administration, but a Juneteenth holiday to celebrate the emancipation of slavery in America was never mentioned during their tenure.

What changed in 2021?

The catalyst was the May 25, 2020 police killing of George Floyd and the riots that erupted nationwide. The next month, as Juneteenth approached, newspapers reported: As the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum, lawmakers are considering making Juneteenth a federal holiday. President Trump also pledged to make Juneteenth a federal holiday during his re-election campaign. Trump was accused of political pandering, while his counterparts escaped charges of attempting to pacify a voting bloc.

There were opposers to the federal holiday, but the opposition wasn’t to the historical significance of Juneteenth. The opposers were concerned that if made into a federal holiday, Juneteenth wouldn’t be inclusive.

What made them think that?

During a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted at an HBCU, candidate Beto O’Rourke mainstreamed the controversial claims of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project and told the nation, “We can mark the creation of this country not on the fourth of July 1776, but on August 20, 1619, when the first kidnapped African was brought to this country.”  Combine that with the fact that a large number of Juneteenth celebrators in Black communities claimed to celebrate Juneteenth instead of the 4th of July, and the concern becomes clear. The political panderers and pacifiers didn’t realize they were endorsing a festivity that was an alternative to an established federal holiday. Black writer Touré made this point in an essay called F**K Fourth of July: The only Independence Day I recognize is Juneteenth.

The opposers would have endorsed a Juneteenth Federal Holiday if its expressed purpose was to celebrate the end of slavery along with the fact America took a step toward living out the true meaning of its creed. Along those lines, the Juneteenth Federal Holiday was ripe with potential. Congress turned MLK’s holiday into a National Day of Service that promotes volunteerism. A Juneteenth Federal Holiday could have been similar and held events in which the proceeds went to non-profit organizations working to end modern-day slavery.

However, the bill President Biden signed was controversially named The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, and Biden told the nation Juneteenth is a day in which we remember the moral stain and the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take today.

The opposers understood an official day to remember a “terrible toll that still continues today” would only lead to racial tension and conflict.

Right after Juneteenth became a federal holiday, Walmart decided to sell Juneteenth tee-shirts, but Walmart was condemned for cultural appropriation. The New York Times published an essay called: What Walmart doesn’t understand about Juneteenth. The essayist complained, “I am sad because when a holiday becomes co-opted like this, those who can gain a sense of self and solidarity from celebrating it often lose … To a megastore selling you a Juneteenth cookout checklist.”

Apparently, in 2022, Walmart still doesn’t understand the politics of Juneteenth and attempted to sell Juneteenth ice cream with a holiday message on the container: Share and celebrate African-American culture, emancipation, and enduring hope.

This time, Walmart was accosted on Twitter for being capitalist exploiters of Black culture. Walmart apologized for the offense and pulled the product. Afterward, a petition went up on Change.org to protect Juneteenth from being co-opted by corporate interest.

What was Walmart’s offense?

One Black writer explained, “Walmart decided to make its own version of Juneteenth ice cream instead of collaborating with a Black brand … This was an opportunity to amplify and uplift a Black brand. Walmart is owned by the Walton family, who, by virtue of their endless streak of driving small stores and mom-and-pop ventures out of business, happens to be the richest family in America. Why not share the wealth with Black people?”

President Biden should rename The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act to The National Day to Share the Wealth.

 

 

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