How to properly celebrate Juneteenth in the age of commercialization

In years past, Juneteenth was primarily celebrated by southern Black folks, especially Black Texans, who commemorated the day with intimate gatherings, Black anthems and comfort food.

Now it’s a federal holiday, observed from coast-to-coast (with exceptions) in different ways.

What changes when an informal celebration becomes an official holiday? There’s more commodification and more government-sponsored events to choose from, for starters.

Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, editor of the essay collection “The Black Agenda,” spoke with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep about how people should appropriately commemorate the day — and support Black Americans throughout the year.

Gifty marks the holiday even though she is a daughter of immigrants whose ancestors were not in the U.S. in 1865.

“Juneteenth is something that is not necessarily part of the story of all Black folks in America, but it’s part of Black America’s story,” Gifty said. “And I think that is worth celebrating every time.”

Here’s how Gifty recommends people do that.


Interview Highlights

Should white people celebrate Juneteenth?

White people should celebrate this holiday in the way that centers Black Americans. What I mean by that is, if your celebration looks like taking away or speaking over Black Americans and how they’re choosing to celebrate and how they’re choosing to stand in their truth, then I don’t think that’s actually celebrating alongside Black Americans. Just don’t interrupt Black folks who are just trying to have a great time.

On how Juneteenth celebrations have evolved over the years

I think it’s great that there’s aspects of the Black American story that are being commemorated in this way. I think that [Ohio State University professor] Dr. Trevon Logan said it best [in a recent op-ed in Bloomberg]: Juneteenth should remind Americans that emancipation was necessary but insufficient. There needs to be an actual grappling with how racial injustice is still shaping the lives of Black Americans and Black folks in America by extension, today.

On the commercialization of Juneteenth

I think the commodification of Juneteenth oftentimes happens in the absence of Black folks actually having a say in how Juneteenth is commemorated by a company or an organization.

I don’t think any Black person would say, please come out with a Juneteenth-flavored ice cream. Ok, I’m looking at Walmart, right?

On what’s wrong with Walmart’s Juneteenth-flavored ice cream

I mean, why are you taking the celebration of the emancipation of slavery, in certain parts of the U.S., and trying to sell it as a quick, “Here’s something that you can easily digest, literally.” And I think that is a problem.

You wouldn’t do that with other important American milestones, and I think even then there’s a level of care that needs to go into that. Because the reality is, while Juneteenth is being commodified, Black Americans and Black folks in America are still struggling. So you’re making money off of supposed Black liberation and freedom, when that freedom and liberation hasn’t been fully realized.

On how companies and organizations can prioritize Black people

Yes, it’s America, so commodification and commercialization is inevitable, right? You know, just go to Times Square, for example. I think my whole point around that is, organizations that really want to deeply engage with Juneteenth also need to deeply grapple with how racial injustice is sort of taking place in their own organizations.

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Transcript :

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How does Juneteenth change as it becomes an institution? An informal celebration is now a federal holiday. It marks the emancipation of enslaved people in Texas after the Civil War. Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman thinks a lot about how to celebrate. She’s editor of a book called “The Black Agenda.” And she plans to mark the holiday, even though she is a daughter of immigrants whose ancestors were not in the United States in 1865.

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Juneteenth is something that is not necessarily part of the story of all Black folks in America, but it’s part of Black America’s story. And I think that is worth celebrating every time.

INSKEEP: Can I ask a question? Because I imagine it’s on the mind of somebody listening. Should white people celebrate this holiday?

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: I think white people should celebrate this holiday in the way that centers Black Americans. What I mean by that is if your celebration looks like taking away or speaking over Black Americans and how they’re choosing to celebrate and how they’re choosing to stand in their truth, then I don’t think that’s actually celebrating alongside Black Americans. Just don’t interrupt (laughter), you know, Black folks who are just trying to have a great time.

INSKEEP: What have you thought about as, over time, this event has gone from an informal holiday celebrated by some people in some places to an official holiday that is becoming a big deal?

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: You know, I think it’s great that, you know, there’s aspects of the Black American story that are being commemorated in this way. I think that, you know, Dr. Trevon Logan said it best. Juneteenth should remind Americans that emancipation was necessary but insufficient, right? There needs to be an actual grappling with how racial injustice is still shaping the lives of Black Americans and Black folks in America, by extension, today.

INSKEEP: Is the holiday becoming commercialized?

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: One hundred percent. (Laughter). Literally, like, there was, like, a watermelon salad, you know, at a children’s museum in commemoration of Juneteenth. I think the commodification of Juneteenth oftentimes happens in the absence of Black folks actually having a say in how, you know, Juneteenth is commemorated by a company or an organization. I don’t think any Black person would say, please come out with a Juneteenth-flavored ice cream. (Laughter) OK, I’m looking at Walmart, right?

INSKEEP: Yeah. Walmart came out with a Juneteenth-flavored ice cream.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Exactly.

INSKEEP: So what’s wrong with that? Why don’t you – let’s put it into words.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: I mean, why are you taking the celebration of the emancipation of slavery in, you know, certain parts of the U.S. and trying to sell it as a quick, you know, here’s something that you can easily digest, literally, right?

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: And I think that that is a problem because you wouldn’t do that with other important American milestones, right? And I think even then, like, there’s a level of care that needs to go into that because the reality is, you know, while Juneteenth is being commodified, Black Americans and Black folks in America are still struggling. So you’re making money off of supposed, you know, Black liberation and freedom when that freedom and liberation hasn’t been fully realized.

INSKEEP: Is there something inevitable about this? Christmas is massively commercialized. Easter is massively commercialized. There are all these holidays that are deeply meaningful to millions of individuals that are also an opportunity to make a buck. And, sometimes, it’s the very same people doing both things.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: What I would say about that is, you know, yes, it’s America. So (laughter) commodification and commercialization is inevitable, right? You know, just go to Times Square, for example. I think my whole point around that is organizations that really want to deeply engage with Juneteenth also need to deeply grapple with how racial injustice is sort of taking place in their own organizations.

INSKEEP: Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, the editor of “The Black Agenda,” thanks so much.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Thanks so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHUCK BROWN AND THE SOUL SEARCHERS SONG, “BUSTIN’ LOOSE”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.