COMMENTARY

How (not) to do Juneteenth, from freedom panties to horrifying video game cosmetics

There's no single way to observe Juneteenth, but corporations have shown us some fairly major ways to get it wrong

Published June 17, 2022 9:15PM (EDT)

Taj Amin-Jolly sells commemorative t-shirts in from of his parent's cafe during Juneteenth celebration on Friday, June 19, 2020 in Leimert Park, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Taj Amin-Jolly sells commemorative t-shirts in from of his parent's cafe during Juneteenth celebration on Friday, June 19, 2020 in Leimert Park, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Like so many corporate PR nightmares, 343 Industries' Juneteenth-related debacle was the product of cluelessness. The video game developers behind "Halo Infinite" offered its players an in-game opportunity to observe the recently recognized federal holiday in the form of a nameplate palette consisting of black, red, and green stripes, the colors of the Pan-African flag, along with a small emblem featuring those colors and gold.

Its nickname was Bonobo, the same as a species of great ape. A barrage of tweets alerted Microsoft and 343 to the problem, and the title was changed within an hour of going live to "Freedom," at first, and before landing on "Juneteenth." All better!

The apologies flew forth at a slightly slower pace than the response, with studio head Bonnie Ross tweeting, "We were made aware of a palette option for our Juneteenth emblem that contained a term that was offensive and hurtful. The team immediately addressed this issue via an update. We are a studio and franchise that is committed to inclusivity where everyone is welcome and supported to be their true self. On behalf of 343, I apologize for making a celebrated moment a hurtful moment."

RELATED: Juneteenth soul food festival canceled in Arkansas after all-white panel of hosts revealed

Another manager also shared on Twitter that the skin drew its name from that of a toolset used within the company, confirmed by a streamer who posted screenshots – all proof, as they say, that no harm was intended.

There's no reason to disbelieve the folks at 343 when they say this was a mistake. Or Walmart, which quietly disappeared from its shelves its swirled red velvet and cheesecake flavored Juneteenth ice cream, its carton bedecked with an illustration of high-fiving brown hands.

The "Juneteenth holiday marks a celebration of freedom and independence," observed the official Walmart statement of the obvious, "However, we received feedback that a few items caused concern for some of our customers and we sincerely apologize."

The American corporate tendency to commodify major holidays was always going to be stymied by the reality of what Juneteenth is.

Somehow it's easier to believe The Children's Museum of Indianapolis was acting in good faith when it introduced a Juneteenth-themed watermelon salad to its cafeteria options for reasons I'll explain in a bit. But it also received complaints, removed the salad, and apologized.

The American corporate tendency to commodify major holidays was always going to be stymied by the reality of what Juneteenth is. Even now, one year from its official establishment as a federal holiday, the shortened explanation of Juneteenth is that it commemorates the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans and celebrates our resilience.

While this is accurate, it glosses over the very real fact that the date represents a two-and-a-half-year delay for hundreds of thousands of Black people to live the freedom declared by President Abraham Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

Among the theories of why it took so long for the news to reach them is one surmising that some federal troops allowed slave owners to get in one more cotton harvest before the law was to be enforced. In any case, Union Army general Gordon Granger proclaimed the state's 250,000 enslaved people to be free as of June 19, 1865, under General Order No. 3.

"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free," the order reads. "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."

Everybody loves that part of the order. But the section that gets less attention is the second paragraph: 

"The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere." Construct the logic puzzle implied by those lines and you may conclude that the most of white people who enslaved Black people did not accept the order with great cheer.

History tells us that the earliest Juneteenth celebrations were joyful, but they took place under threat of violence – which also made celebrating the holiday an act of defiance. Surely our ancestors dreamed of many of the freedoms and opportunities Black folks take for granted today.

One of those visions probably didn't involve Lane Bryant marketing red drawers with the ridiculously anodyne phrase "Peace. Love. Juneteenth." The inappropriate holiday-themed panties became a comedy punchline once comic  Roy Wood Jr. got hold of Lane Bryant's catalog listing: "First of all, Juneteenth Panties should be $16.19," he quipped. The underwear disappeared from its website soon afterward. However, as this photo that Rene Dugar shared with Salon shows, it was still available and prominently featured in at least one Louisiana shop as of June 7.

Juneteenth themed underwearJuneteenth themed underwear (Photo by René Dugar)As I've written previously, getting Juneteenth to be a federal holiday is the result of decades of work by community organizers around the country, including 94-year-old Opal Lee, the grandmother who walked from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington D.C. to rally attention to the cause.

What this country doesn't excel at is observing holidays with culturally-specific origins in ways that aren't appropriative, disrespectful, or aim to make money off of marginalized people's pain.

Those same folks likely know that Americans are excellent at ignoring the unpleasant roots of their good time traditions. They're even better at forgetting or burying the contributions Black people have made to the betterment of their lives. Indeed, Juneteenth isn't the second day off brought to you by Black folks after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day; look up the origins of Memorial Day.

What this country doesn't excel at is observing holidays with culturally specific origins in ways that aren't appropriative, disrespectful, or aim to make money off of marginalized people's pain. And Juneteenth poses a special challenge for anyone who wants to celebrate respectfully without angering people.

The Children's Museum of Indianapolis is a perfect example of this because, indeed, watermelon is considered to be a traditional Juneteenth food, along with other red refreshments such as hibiscus tea, red punch, and strawberry soda.

The prominence of red in Juneteenth cuisine is said to acknowledge the blood sacrifice of the Black people who languished and perished in bondage. Among the enslaved brought to North America from West African nations, red is also a color associated with strength, spirit, and sacrifice.  

All of which is to say that the Children's Museum may have had the right idea but failed to present its salad with contextualizing information. Whereas Walmart was just trying to make a buck.


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So how can one celebrate Juneteenth without turning into, say, Craig the Optometrist from "Atlanta"? There are many answers. Corporations like Microsoft, Walmart, and Lane Bryant Inc. might use their respective mortifying teachable moments to make efforts to cultivate and hire Black professionals who might have advised against releasing such inappropriate products.

Other people might look within their local Black communities and enjoy one of the many celebrations hosted by local organizations and businesses happy to have more people share in this tradition that's still not widely understood. You could use your day off as a day of service, support a Black business, or expand your knowledge of the history and throw a cookout with a traditional menu created with each dish's significance in mind.

You could simply remember that the Juneteenth day off you're enjoying probably isn't possible for millions who don't have white-collar jobs, many of whom are descendants of the people in whose name this holiday was created.

Because one day, if trends and habits hold, Juneteenth will become just another holiday everywhere outside of Texas – and plenty of towns inside that state too. Maybe the best we can do is use that day to pause, commit its true history and origins to memory, and be inspired by its significance to do better on that day and the 364 others. And by all means, enjoy that slice of red velvet cake to the fullest.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Capitalism Commentary Emancipation Halo Holiday Juneteenth Lane Bryant Microsoft Walmart