The clip below first aired on the season 4 premiere of the ABC television show "black-ish."
In it, the legendary hip-hop band, The Roots, discussed the history of the end of slavery in the United States in a song titled, "I Am a Slave." The Schoolhouse Rock style animated clip provides a brief history of the events that are the foundation of the Juneteenth holiday.
For reference, Juneteenth refers to the date, June 19, 1865, where Major General Gordon Granger sailed into Galveston, Texas, with an estimated 2,000 Union troops and declared that slavery would no longer be tolerated in the state. This event is colloquially understood as the “actual” end of slavery, which came two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed into law on January 1, 1863, by then President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.
In the clip, after a boy asks The Roots why the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free those enslaved until two years later, to which they replied that it took two years after the signing of the proclamation for the Civil War to end, the boy responded by saying, “Oh, so you were freed when the war ended.” However, that was not the case, so The Roots countered instead by saying, “Nah, not for two more months because Texas landowners wanted another harvest.”
This points to something a bit more nefarious about the history of emancipation, racial capitalism and the degrees to which freedom and what kinds of freedoms could be practiced in the United States and by whom. The Emancipation Proclamation itself carries the misnomer of its intent being to end slavery. On the contrary, it didn’t require northern states like Delaware and Missouri to end slavery nor did it bestow the rights and privileges of American citizenship upon free Black Northerners. On the other hand, for the seceded Southern States, it only declared its enslaved population free if they chose not to rejoin the Union by January 1st. Therefore, it wasn’t the “Great Emancipator” that freed the enslaved Africans in the South. Instead, those who were liberated by the Emancipation Proclamation were freed by force either of their own self-liberation or though military intervention by the Union army.
What this all points to is that slavery and by extension, the Black lives it consumed, were simply commodities used for negotiating white capitalist or political interests. In other words, they were tools to expand and assume power. This power was the freedom sought by Texas landowners to maximize their profits by forcing those they enslaved to participate in one final harvest and by the Union seeking the Confederate states’ reentry into their political purview. However, it was the enslaved themselves, who won their freedom and who have poured this history of resistance and remembrance into the generations that have followed and is why Juneteenth has been celebrated annually since 1866.
Juneteenth is my favorite holiday. Every year it reminds me to reflect and give thanks to my ancestors, who endured unimaginable violence and tyranny so that their and thus my legacy could live on. Since its early days, it has been a part of my family as well as the larger Black community across the western hemisphere. Annually, people celebrate by having large and small gatherings including festivals replete with prayer and church services, speeches, cookouts, music and poetry performances, and testimonies from elders. Juneteenth is a time to carry on these traditions, which up until recently existed almost exclusively and only marginally within various Black communities in the Black Atlantic region. The music video for the song, “Juneteenth” by hip-hop educator, Griot B, gives a good sense of just what I mean by this.
However, especially as of June 16, 2021, when Congress passed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday(United States President Joe Biden signed it into law the very next day), the days and months that lead up to Juneteenth is also a time of year that consistently and without fail reminds me of the insidiousness, impenitentness, and treachery that defines white supremacy and racial capitalism.
To give a recent example, on May 24, 2022, TheGrio reported in a story titled, “Walmart apologizes for selling Juneteenth ice cream at its stores,” that “following backlash over the Juneteenth-themed ice cream, Walmart announced that it was removing the items from its shelves.” It may just seem odd or even comedic at first glance that Walmart would sell a swirled red velvet and cheesecake flavor ice cream under its Great Value brand in commemoration of Juneteenth, but when one notices the ‘TM’ trademark symbol following the word “Juneteenth” on the packaging, a familiar sense of the dread of exploitation begins to rear its ugly head.
As evidence, TheGrio also reports in this article that, “one Twitter user noted “a white-owned chemical manufacturing company called Balchem Corp. trademarked “Juneteenth” on September 2, 2021.”” This is just three months after Juneteenth was made a federal holiday. The article continues, “The United States Patent and Trademark Office notes several variations of Juneteenth trademarked by different corporations, one being Balchem.”
Just as we saw Texas landowners greedily continue the barbaric system of slavery for their capital interests by way of “one more harvest,” this attempt to once again turn Black people and their history into a commodity for white and corporate profit and literal consumption, is precisely the continued legacy of the deviousness of white supremacy and racial capitalism that is at the very root of this country’s antagonistic relationship with Black people.
So, as we continue to, or, as we learn to incorporate the many great communal traditions in our federally recognized Juneteenth celebrations in the coming years, let us also be hypervigilant and critical of the predatory and exploitive practices that are (sad as it may be) also an ever-present tradition that siphons from Black culture and this great holiday.
Martin L. Boston is an assistant professor of Pan African Studies and Ethnic Studies at California State University, Sacramento (Sacramento State). He holds a doctorate in Ethnic Studies from the University of California, San Diego (UC San Diego), and has also taught at DePaul University, UC San Diego, and Washington State University before joining the Ethnic Studies Department at Sacramento State.