Now a Paid Holiday for Many, Juneteenth Battles Creeping Commercialization
Posted June 17, 2022
This year will be the first that Juneteenth is a paid holiday for many Georgia residents who work for the state and many local governments. They will join their colleagues in the federal government who first got a paid day off last year. And, as with many holidays, growing awareness comes with one thing: new products and sales.
And while we’ve become at least begrudgingly accustomed to the commercialization of holidays such as Christmas and Memorial Day, corporate America’s halting steps toward recognizing Juneteenth have not been universally well-received. André Brock, an associate professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication who studies Black Twitter, noticed an uptick in outrage following, among other things, Wal-Mart’s marketing of a Juneteenth-themed ice cream not long after it appeared on store shelves, leading to a barrage of stinging media coverage, and at least a few corporate retractions.
“There were some people who were like, ‘No corporation should ever commemorate this holiday,’” Brock said. Others, he said, suggested commemorative items from Black-owned businesses or taking steps to demonstrate a commitment to supporting local Juneteenth celebrations. But few were happy with the ice cream, the picnic supplies, or perhaps most egregiously, the watermelon salad they were offered.
Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. It commemorates the day in 1865 when Union Gen. Granger landed in Galveston, Texas, and told Black residents that slavery in the Confederate states had been abolished two and a half years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln. Texas was the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday, in 1980. In 2021, President Joe Biden issued an executive order making it a permanent paid holiday for the federal government’s 2.2 million civilian and 1.2 million military employees. The Georgia General Assembly passed a law this spring following suit.
For Brock, it comes as little surprise that companies have moved to take advantage of the holiday with sales. After all, Memorial Day — another holiday historians give credit to Black Americans for starting — is as much associated in many minds with deals on ribs and patio furniture as it is commemorating the lives of U.S. service members lost in military conflicts.
“The commodification of resistance and remembrance can be so easily done,” Brock said. “We all complain about these other holidays being commercialized, but there’s something particularly problematic about global corporations attempting to capture these two celebrations, started by Black communities, that commemorate a moment of liberation and freedom.”
To Charles Easley Jr., a professor of the practice in the Scheller College of Business and the Institute for Leadership and Social Impact, companies do have an opportunity to fold such holidays into their corporate work that doesn’t just come off as a cash grab but reflects a genuine desire to draw a connection between their values and those of Juneteenth.
It starts with listening, doing the work, and the research, he says — something some of the companies rolling out Juneteenth products and sales this year obviously didn’t do. Context and intent are critical to effective communication and intended positive results, especially for leaders, according to Easley, a 1986 Industrial Management alumnus who worked as an executive with Lowe’s and Walgreen’s, among other companies, before returning to his alma mater to teach.
“I would start with something my dad, Charles Easley Sr., former senior vice president of student affairs at Atlanta Metropolitan State College, always used to say to me, and that is, ‘You always have time to do the right thing,’” he said.
He suggested that instead of quickly rushing to roll out a product, service, or sale meant to capitalize on a holiday with such immense meaning to so many, companies should first look to see how something like Juneteenth aligns with their corporate values and mission statement and find ways to educate and connect along those lines. Having diverse perspectives in the boardroom, decision-making levels, and processes are good first steps. Listening to employee resource groups, employees, and community members who help corporate leaders understand the importance of the holiday and how companies can contribute in a positive way will always net a more favorable return, if not on investment, on social intent, Easley said.
“Look at it as a way to do something that increases understanding and empathy. It’s a part of knowing and valuing our history and triumphs, both the ending of slavery and beginning of emancipation and participation,” he said.
He cited the example of Holiday Inn, the first national hotel chain to begin welcoming Black travelers. The move opened economic growth, social mobility, and acceptance by providing a safe option to the long-used Green Book. Easley said they were pioneers and showed courage and corporate social responsibility leadership, and profited from it.
“They did it without fanfare, glitz, or huge marketing campaign. Yet they just did it and captured the customer with empathy, authenticity, reliability, and dependability. Regardless of where I stay when traveling, I still carry that memory with a fondness for the brand and have shared that story with my children, youth, and younger generations. I even give some positive shine to their parent company IHG,” he said.
Brock comes at the issue from his position as a leading scholar of Black Twitter and how technology shapes and is shaped by marginalized communities. For him, the response of Black Twitter users and the resulting decision by some marketers to pull back on cringe-inducing Juneteenth marketing shows the power of such platforms for otherwise marginalized groups.
“They give a voice to people who don’t necessarily have a space to create a public sphere where they can be heard by the people they are critiquing. Twitter is especially good at this because its barrier of entry is low, Black people have significant representation on the platform, and a ton of journalists are deeply invested in it,” Brock said.
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