Jun 19, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Juneteenth is at risk of losing its meaning

Illustration of a Black fist wearing a kente cloth bandana.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Juneteenth is meant to acknowledge Black emancipation from enslavement, but there's a risk it could turn into just another day off, defined more by road trips and sales on mattresses.

The big picture: Corporations, retailers and some local governments are struggling with how to honor the holiday that commemorates the end of slavery.

Why it matters: Juneteenth became a federal holiday just last year. This year is the first time it's been a holiday that anyone has been able to plan for.

What they're saying: "When you live in a society like ours, there's always the danger that these sorts of holidays will be absorbed into a kind of market, consumer-based. kind of logic or experience," Eddie S. Glaude, chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University, told Axios.

  • "You don't just want to commercialize it. This is not just another day where you just take off," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told Axios. "It is a day of freedom, of liberation for people who were once slaves and who were set free."

Yes, but: Some companies are using Juneteenth as an opportunity for branding and community service.

  • Power Home Remodeling— one of the nation's largest exterior home remodelers — is kicking off an inaugural Juneteenth Initiative in Atlanta with a walking tour of Black historical sites and outings to Black-owned businesses.
  • Delta Air Lines and American Family Insurance announced their participation in Unlock Potential, a racial equity-focused hiring program for at-risk youth that aims to prevent incarceration.

Background: Juneteenth has been celebrated for years in Houston and Galveston, Texas, to commemorate U.S. Major General Gordon Granger's issuing of General Order No. 3 during the Civil War.

  • That order announced that, in accordance with the Emancipation Proclamation, “all slaves are free.” Texas was one of the last places in the U.S. where enslaved people learned of the Emancipation.
  • The day was marked for decades in the Houston area with cookouts, parades, concerts and lectures as a way to recapture the excitement of hope and emancipation.
  • Juneteenth celebrations became more and more prominent across the country in recent years and became a rallying point following the murder of George Floyd, which helped build the momentum to make it a federal holiday.

The bottom line: "Whether you're having a barbecue and eating red velvet cake on Juneteenth and not thinking about slavery at all, or whether it is a program that has been organized so that we can think about it ... without the holiday, those two different events wouldn't have happened," Glaude said.

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