Part of the Juneteenth issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
In November 1855, Elizabeth Keckley made an extraordinary purchase: her freedom.
After spending years supporting her enslaver and his family by making dresses for the wealthy women of St. Louis, Keckley finally asked him how much it would cost to secure freedom for herself and her son. He reluctantly set the price at $1,200 (nearly $40,000 today). After several more years of supporting the enslaver’s family — a tumultuous time that included his death, the transfer of his estate to a new enslaver, and Keckley’s marriage to a man she didn’t much like — she had raised the money required.
“The twelve hundred dollars were raised, and at last my son and myself were free. Free, free! what a glorious ring to the word,” Keckley wrote in her autobiography Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. “Free! the bitter heart-struggle was over. Free! the soul could go out to heaven and to God with no chains to clog its flight or pull it down. Free! the earth wore a brighter look, and the very stars seemed to sing with joy.”
Freedom has been a peculiar thing in America. Here, the fundamental human right of ownership of one’s body has been sought, chased, bestowed, and purchased. Many of us are taught that this parable of America is a beautiful one — it is a nation where you can do or be anything if you work hard enough for it. But Keckley’s story reflects a more sinister expectation that persists today: that Black people who want to savor America’s sweetest dream must pay for it, again and again.
You could argue that Juneteenth, which acknowledges the day when news of their freedom finally reached the last enslaved persons in 1865, made its most prominent mainstream appearance in 2020. Following the summer’s antiracism demonstrations, the holiday was infused with a new level of significance. Several prominent corporations — including Nike, Twitter, and Target — made Juneteenth a company holiday in an attempt to push forward antiracist policies.
Soon, municipalities moved to codify the holiday. Last year, a decades-long fight to make Juneteenth a national holiday was won, underscoring how the circumstances of delayed freedom more than a century ago remain relevant today. Incorporating the legacy of Juneteenth would, the thinking went, bolster the history of Black Americans while highlighting the disparities we still face.
“Juneteenth reminds us that freedom, as a lived experience, is still not shared equally. But it is also an observance of resilience in a centuries-old journey,” reporter Audra D.S. Burch wrote in the New York Times. “It is Black joy and Black hope and the protection of Black hearts and Black celebration in the very streets where demonstrators have shouted the names of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks.”
Black people are indeed tormented by America today. The country’s capitalist system is no small tormentor, exerting its consequences through high poverty rates, a militarized police force, and so many other derivative structures we come into contact with on a daily basis. That truth is why Black celebrations are sacred. It’s how we commemorate our history. And it is why freedom, for us, is complicated. We’re celebrating a milestone of our ancestors even as we acknowledge a reality we don’t fully have.
That’s why it’s so galling to see corporations and businesses dig their nails into Juneteenth as if it’s a trend and not a day of reverence for freedom’s complexities.
The commercialization of the holiday has already begun. While a gimmicky sticker pack appears to have been removed from Target’s website, J.C. Penney is still selling Juneteenth bucket hats. Can coolers declaring “It’s the freedom for me” — a horrendous attempt at African-American Vernacular English — have been spotted. Walmart released a Juneteenth-themed red velvet cheesecake ice cream. After it was met with the intense backlash online, the store pulled the product, releasing a statement it had “received feedback that a few items caused concern for some of our customers and we sincerely apologize.” (Here’s a list of Black-owned ice cream brands to support.) To add insult to injury, all of these products featured the Pan-African flag colors — not the red, white, and blue of the official Juneteenth flag. It only further proves that corporations see Juneteenth as little more than a cash grab.
To accurately assess why people are upset about these crass ploys to get money from Black consumers, we have to look at what was historically America’s most profitable financial asset: Black people. “As overseers and plantation owners managed a forced-labor system aimed at maximizing efficiency, they interacted with a network of bankers and accountants and took out lines of credit and mortgages, all to manage America’s empire of cotton,” wrote P.R. Lockhart for Vox in 2019. “An entire industry, America’s first big business, revolved around slavery.”
Freedom was no less intertwined with American capitalist zeal. On June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union Army reached Galveston, Texas, with the message that all enslaved persons were now free. “This,” he relayed, “involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
Liberation for the enslaved Black Texans, however, came with caveats, as it always does in America. The enslavers not only got to decide how to announce the news, they also could delay that freedom until after the harvest season. Black Texans took the memory of that day with them as they migrated, and the next year, in 1866, the first Juneteenth was celebrated. Those who left Galveston and their descendants marked the occasion with sporting events, cookouts, fervent dances, parades, Negro spirituals, and, in some instances, fireworks. They also took the time to measure their progress: How far had they come since being freed?
That complicated question remains relevant, especially financially. Their freedom from enslavement came with a slew of broken assurances to help Black families gain true liberation. The promise that Black families would receive a land grant of 40 acres and, in some cases, a mule, was broken following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. (“This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men,” President Andrew Johnson declared in 1866 after he rescinded the order.)
As the Jim Crow years began, so did the mounting cost of simply being Black in America. In the 1890s, poll taxes, buoyed by “grandfather clauses,” were levied to prevent Black people from casting ballots. By excluding domestic and farmworkers, the 1935 Social Security Act excluded 60 percent of Black Americans. In 1944, despite being federally mandated, the G.I. Bill was executed at the local level and was stymied by redlining and racist housing covenants. (Eventually, that evolved into balloon loans.)
It’s estimated that racism has resulted in a staggering $70 trillion loss for Black Americans, an appraisal most well evidenced in the country’s wealth gap. Enslaved Africans built the infrastructure of this country, and the production of cotton in the South laid the foundation for America’s economic prosperity; America’s “Black taxes” are a glimpse into the ways our capital has been demanded, despite our labor never being properly compensated.
The resulting overall gap in wealth could be alleviated by paying reparations. Or by taxing the wealthy, not to mention multibillion-dollar corporations like Walmart, Target, and J.C. Penney — the same companies attempting to exploit Black Americans’ complex relationship to freedom with shoddy Juneteenth merchandise.
The Black people who work in these sorts of stores are promoted less, and have lower wages, worse benefits, and higher job instability than their white peers. (Walmart, which filled its shelves this year with Juneteenth merch, is one of the worst culprits of this.) These corporations were able to build their immense fortunes due to the legacy of white supremacy affording white business owners more capital and opportunity.
With Juneteenth ice cream, bucket hats, and other knickknacks no one asked for, they’re taking the desire to celebrate freedom and converting it into products to sell back to us, paying no mind to why we observe the holiday in the first place: We, like Keckley, were once the products, expected to purchase our own autonomy.
Julia Craven is a reporter covering health. She’s the brain behind Make It Make Sense, a weekly health and wellness newsletter, and her work has been featured in HuffPost, Slate, and the 2021 edition of The Best American Science and Nature Writing.