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Companies are selling Juneteenth branded products. Here's why that's a big problem

Juneteenth, or Emancipation Day, commemorates the end of slavery on June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas, in compliance with President Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Here, a young woman stands near a piece of art created during the Louisville Juneteenth Festival at the Big Four Lawn on June 19, 2021 in Louisville, Ky.
Jon Cherry
Getty Images
Juneteenth, or Emancipation Day, commemorates the end of slavery on June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas, in compliance with President Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Here, a young woman stands near a piece of art created during the Louisville Juneteenth Festival at the Big Four Lawn on June 19, 2021 in Louisville, Ky.

From store-branded Juneteenth ice cream to Juneteenth-themed paper plates and party supplies, to even selling a Juneteenth watermelon salad, many large companies and brands are facing backlash for their efforts to commemorate the federal holiday signed into law last year.

Following its negative reaction on social media, Walmart pulled its special edition flavor of ice cream commemorating Juneteenth from shelves, with many critics calling out the retailer for capitalizing on the holiday for profit.

"There were several missteps with this. When you collectively look at all these missteps — the branding, the marketing, the visual rhetoric — you understand that there weren't Black creatives in the room that had a voice at the table," Christina Ferraz, founder and head consultant of public relations agency Thirty6five, told NPR.

Last month, the giant retailer apologized for selling its "Celebration Edition: Juneteenth Ice Cream"under its Great Value brand.

"Juneteenth holiday marks a celebration of freedom and independence. However, we received feedback that a few items caused concern for some of our customers and we sincerely apologize," the company said in its statement to NPR.

The Children's Museum of Indianapolis apologized and removed its Juneteenth-themed watermelon salad from its food court menu ahead of its Juneteenth Jamboree celebration.

"As a museum, we apologize and acknowledge the negative impact that stereotypes have on Black communities. The salad has been removed from the menu," the museum said in its statement. "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 future food selections are made by our food service provider."

But while companies are working continuously to remove their Juneteenth items off shelves, experts argue that companies that are selling and promoting Juneteenth-branded products are tone-deaf — claiming they are only profiting off Black suffering.

"When a corporation comes in, uses that further marketing march and then capitalizes off it and sells it, what we're seeing is modern-day colonialism," said Ferraz.

Experts say the true meaning of the commemoration can easily be lost through consumerism and widespread consumption.

The importance of Juneteenth and what it represents

Whether you call it Freedom Day, Emancipation Day or just simply Juneteenth, the annual commemoration is significant in U.S. history — marking our country's second independence day.

"Juneteenth is a significant cultural resonance to the African American community, but also, of course, throughout much of the rest of the country," said Ravi Perry, political science professor at Howard University.

On June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger — who had fought for the Union — arrived at Galveston, Texas, with nearly 2,000 troops to announce that the more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state were finally free.

Granger's announcement came about two months after the ending of the Civil War and nearly three years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

During his visit, Granger issued General Order No. 3, informing the people of Texas that those who were enslaved were now free, according to the National Archives. Juneteenth gets its name by combining both "June" and "nineteenth," the day that Granger arrived in Galveston with his announcement.

"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor," the order reads, in part.

Major brands are still working to become more diverse

Over the course of the last two years, large brands and companies have become noticeably more inclusive. A number of major brands have featured more Black and other minorities in their ads and marketing materials as a way to take a stand against racism.

Last year, McDonald's partnered with multi-platinum rapper Saweetie as the fast-food chain featured her "Saweetie Meal."

Cadillac partnered with actress Regina King as a brand ambassador and the star for its campaign for the newest line of the Escalade SUV. And Chase Bank partnered with comedian Kevin Hart as a spokesperson, promoting financial literacy amongst communities of color.

Major brands and corporations are continuing to partner with Black and brown celebrities in an effort to maintain and expand their consumers of color.

"With the uprising and the advocacy and the demands after the murder of George Floyd, really there's been a spotlight shining on the importance of highlighting and making space for Black people, specifically Black women," Alfredo Del Cid, head of learning and development at consulting firm Collective, told NPR in 2021.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jonathan Franklin
Jonathan Franklin is a digital reporter on the News desk covering general assignment and breaking national news.

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