Watermelon for sale? Juneteenth ice cream? Some Black leaders warn there is a wrong way to celebrate.

·4 min read

On Friday, Juneteenth NY launched its 13th annual festivities in New York City to commemorate the nation’s newest federal holiday. The theme, "Unity in the Black Family Unit,” is a nod to this year's holiday landing on Father's Day and included performances, vendors and a fashion exhibit highlighting emerging Black designers.

"For Saturday, we will highlight our Kings of Kwanza, honoring 25 men of color doing fantastic work in the Black community," said Athenia Rodney, founder and executive director of Juneteenth NY. "On Sunday, we're going to start with traditional activities like Libation and honoring ancestors."  

For Rodney and others who have observed Black freedom for many years, Juneteenth is about recognizing Black leaders and culture. They are increasingly concerned about how Americans with no history of observing Juneteenth celebrate the holiday. They warned Juneteenth should not become another American holiday about buying things. High-profile missteps, such as Walmart’s Juneteenth ice cream and the Children's Museum of Indianapolis' Juneteenth watermelon salad, have provoked outrage.

Juneteenth NY Fest launches its 13th annual festivities commemorating the nation’s newest federal holiday. The theme, "Unity in the Black Family Unit,” is in conjunction with the holiday landing on Father's Day. The event features performances from local talent, a wide range of vendors and a fashion exhibit highlighting emerging Black designers.
Juneteenth NY Fest launches its 13th annual festivities commemorating the nation’s newest federal holiday. The theme, "Unity in the Black Family Unit,” is in conjunction with the holiday landing on Father's Day. The event features performances from local talent, a wide range of vendors and a fashion exhibit highlighting emerging Black designers.

"Of course, this will happen. Look what they have done with Martin Luther King Jr. Day," said David Utter, a civil rights attorney for Fair Fight Initiative, a Georgia nonprofit organization that works to end mass incarceration. "Also, we can go back to Black Heritage Month and see the trend of monetizing holidays in America."

Angela Bannerman Ankoma, vice president and executive director of equity leadership for the Rhode Island Foundation, a nonprofit organization, said Juneteenth is about serving the community, not big corporations trying to make a buck.

"We knew about the risk of Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday," Bannerman Ankoma said.

Some Black people said they are wary of non-Black communities taking the lead on Juneteenth celebrations.

"Anything that has to do with history needs to be written, illustrated, drawing, put to music for our personal tragedy and not for somebody from the outside to do that for us," said Alex Bostic, an art professor at Mississippi State University's College of Architecture, Art and Design and the illustrator of the children's book "Free at Last: A Juneteenth Poem." "From the 1800s into the present, we can see how the Black image has been commercialized."

How to celebrate Juneteenth

Juneteenth, also known as "Juneteenth Independence Day" or "Freedom Day," commemorates the announcement on June 19, 1865, of the abolition of slavery in Galveston, Texas, and, more generally, the emancipation of enslaved African Americans throughout the Confederate South.

The holiday has been a tradition for the Black community for decades, as families and organizations hosted yearly celebrations. Organizers of Juneteenth events said people new to the holiday, especially corporations, should turn to these organizations for guidance on how to salute Juneteenth.

The marching band from the Brooklyn United Music & Arts Program performs at Juneteenth NY.
The marching band from the Brooklyn United Music & Arts Program performs at Juneteenth NY.

"They need to go back to the roots to understand why this is a celebration and involve the people that the celebration was intended for," said Celeste Smith, co-founder and board member of 1Hood, a youth hip-hop nonprofit based in Pennsylvania. “The essence of this historic celebration is that we seek unity as people."

After multiple social media posts slammed Walmart in May for selling a "Celebration Edition: Juneteenth Ice Cream," under its Great Value label, the company removed the items and apologized.

"Juneteenth holiday marks a celebration of freedom and independence," a Walmart spokesperson said in a statement. "However, we received feedback that a few items caused concern for some of our customers and we sincerely apologize.”

The Children's Museum of Indianapolis found itself in a similar predicament when its food court offered a "Juneteenth watermelon salad." It removed the item after an outcry.

"We are currently reviewing how we may best convey these stories and traditions during this year's Juneteenth celebration as well as making changes around how our food service provider makes future food selections,” the museum said in a statement.

Lizette Williams, a marketing and advertising executive who specializes in diversity outreach, said brands need to find a successful way to acknowledge Juneteenth.

“I can’t speak to Walmart or any organization specifically, but what I can say is that this is a teachable moment for all of us, our organizations and society-at-large as Juneteenth has become a federally recognized holiday,” she said. “Juneteenth, for example, is an excellent time for allies to demonstrate their support of anti-racism.”

Juneteenth NY worked to partner with corporations to mark the holiday responsibly, Rodney said.

The Betsy Head Cardio Dance Aerobics group performs at Juneteenth NY.
The Betsy Head Cardio Dance Aerobics group performs at Juneteenth NY.

Festival organizers unveiled an expanded Kid's Corner, including a basketball clinic hosted by the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Liberty and a hockey clinic hosted by the New York Rangers. Uber will provide discounted rides for festival attendees. 

The festival includes "Libation & Liberation: The Quilt Project,” honoring the cultural legacy of Black American textile-making. The project aims to cement the Juneteenth holiday as an opportunity for creative expressions of grief, mourning and community co-creation and storytelling. Participants were encouraged to design a block in memory of loved ones lost to COVID-19.

"I will say, ultimately, I felt that people didn't really know how to celebrate Juneteenth after it became a federal holiday," Rodney said. "I understand that this allows corporations to say, let's connect to this. But the nation should take the cue from the Black community."

Jasmine Kingi, left, 26, and Robin Renee Green, 26, both from Los Angeles, celebrate as they take part in a car parade to mark Juneteenth, on June 19, 2021, in Inglewood, Calif. Recognition of Juneteenth, the effective end of slavery in the U.S., gained traction after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. It became a federal holiday in 2021.
Jasmine Kingi, left, 26, and Robin Renee Green, 26, both from Los Angeles, celebrate as they take part in a car parade to mark Juneteenth, on June 19, 2021, in Inglewood, Calif. Recognition of Juneteenth, the effective end of slavery in the U.S., gained traction after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. It became a federal holiday in 2021.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Juneteenth celebration 2022: Concerns about commercialization grow