President Biden hands a pen to Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) during the signing of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act in the East Room of the White House. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
President Biden hands a pen to Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) during the signing of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act in the East Room of the White House. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

Witnessing the Selling Out of Juneteenth Right Before Our Eyes

For those active and aware of the African (Black) experience of struggle over the last 500+ years, Juneteenth, along with African Liberation Day and all commemorations of our glorious fight for dignity, are institutions to keep us focused on the work at hand.  When I was growing up in San Francisco, California, U.S., in the 70s, events like Juneteenth had a decided political temperature.  This was certainly the case in the historically strong and political African existence within the Bay Area.  Juneteenth commemorations within the Fillmore and Hunters Points areas of San Francisco, areas African people dominated in the 70s, were independent, bold, and full of a clear focus on our continuing fight for liberation against this empire that continues to oppress us.  I recall greatly enjoying the blaring music of James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, etc.  The resulting dancing in the streets by thousands of Africans and others interested and supportive of our struggle and history.  I was also influenced by the always present existence of speakers from the independent community-based African nationalist organizations who organized those events.  It was from those events and others that I learned that our people have always struggled against oppression from the eastern shores of Africa all the way to the western shores of this hemisphere.  I learned about the Maroon resistance against the slave raids.  The Quilombo societies that formed to protect our people.  Societies that still exist today in Brazil and other places.  The strong resistance of our people in Africa against colonialism and slavery.  The message at those events was consistent and it had a strong impact on me.  We, and only we will bring about the freedom of our people and that will only happen from all of us making commitments to get involved and participate in our liberation struggle on a collective basis.  Those events were sponsored by independent and radical organizations like the Pan-African People’s Organization and other similar formations.

Fast forward to today and although independent and radical African organizations definitely still exist,   I belong to one, our capacity to be the organizers of events like Juneteenth has been overrun by the non-profit industrial complex and for-profit corporations.  Today, organizations like the Pan-African People’s Organization and the National Committee for Reparations have been replaced in sponsorship by Wells Fargo and other multinational corporations who can easily spend thousands of dollars for a show.  As a result, the militant and uncompromising spirit of the Juneteenth celebrations I grew up with has been replaced by a dominant “can we all get along” party atmosphere that uplifts symbolic progress while hammering the message that the absolute only legitimate form of struggle that is morally acceptable is that waged through the capitalist electoral process on an individual basis.

I was talking to a longtime friend this past weekend.  This African has been one of the most, if not the most, visible African drummers in this city for decades.  He was lamenting how back in the day, he and other drummers and dancing groups customarily opened all cultural events like Juneteenth and how the atmosphere has changed so that such a cultural infusion today is extremely difficult.  It’s difficult because what that brother and others like him represent is the African cultural and independent spirit of our historical resistance.  The organizers of today’s pro-capitalist joint party events have absolutely no interest in keeping that spirit alive.

When you understand the contradictions of capitalism, class struggle, and neo-colonialism, none of this should surprise you.  What’s challenging is that the majority of African people seem to see no issue with any of this.  In fact, many of them have wholeheartedly accepted this move along individually to find your seat at the master’s table approach and theme to Juneteenth that was dominant at commemorations that happened this past weekend.  I see it constantly.  Instead of Juneteenth being a vehicle to encourage us to organize collectively for mass liberation against the system (as it was designed), it has become a “venmo Black people some money” day.  I’m not saying we don’t need to support people who need financial support.  I do this often, but we cannot permit our mass institutions who struggle for justice to be reduced to an individualistic focus on any random African who is struggling to pay their bills.  Especially when that message loses the focus on the need for us to take collective responsibility for our liberation. 

In most of these Juneteenth events, there was little to no mention of police terrorism, systemic white supremacy. Even the thought that there would be any type of Pan-African message or a comment about the need for revolution would be blasphemous.  Instead, those necessary messages are now completely replaced with “get a job— preferably with the police department or sign up to join one of the military branches.  Or, “sign up for a new cell phone service or buy shirts with pictures of Kamala Harris”, and/or meaningless and absurd messages like “I’m rooting for everyone Black! (even if they work to advance the very system that oppresses our people)” 

On social media, some Africans decry any effort by people like me to point up these contradictions because it ruins their party atmosphere.  Regardless, these contradictions will continue to be exposed because African people must come to understand what’s actually happening here underneath the party atmospheres with Drake playing to red, black, and green balloons.  The capitalist system is doing what it always does. Its job is to eradicate militancy from our people.  To perpetuate the long-ago disproven myth that if we just continue to hold our breath, the oppression that holds us back will quietly disappear and these events are just “celebrations” about the waiting process and/or the celebration of the few individuals who have achieved some measure of advancement within the capitalist system (while the masses continue to suffer).  And, the kicker is that these capitalists are so arrogant that their message will continue to hold our people that they do not even feel the need to address the obvious contradiction of their government approving a Juneteenth holiday (symbolic progress) while continuing to deny the importance of even teaching about the history of the chattel slavery system (institutional misinformation against us).

And, the capitalist system, always the source for all of our contradictions, isn’t solely to blame for all of this dysfunction.  The African petti-bourgeoisie plays a significant role by continuing to flex their muscles by supporting all efforts to win our people over to the capitalist system.  They do this because that is the very reason for their existence – to serve as a buffer class to control the masses of African people.

No one is saying you cannot enjoy the music, food, etc.  None of you enjoy those things more than I do.  What is being said here is when you have walked through the slave dungeons in Senegal and Ghana as I have.  When you have visited the slave plantations in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, Jamaica, and Cuba, as I have.  When you have studied extensively and participated in our liberation struggle for quite some time as I have.  You develop strong skills in being able to properly assess what’s happening with our people.  Juneteenth, African Liberation Day, Kwanzaa, etc., all of it was created to serve one specific purpose.  To remind us of the struggle and sacrifice required for us to be free as a people.  The reminder is critical because the fight is obviously still taking place.  That important last point gets completely erased by the corporate-sponsored parties.  Those are designed to make you think the struggle part is in the past so all that’s needed now is a few tweaks here and there and a party.  The corporate structure of current-day capitalism owes its origination and maintenance to the oppression of the African masses and that’s true specifically, not just theoretically.  As a result, they will always see their role as that of using their massive resources (that result from their exploitation of Africa, the African masses, and all of humanity) to propagate us to have nothing except complete allegiance to their vision.  Based on events this past weekend, the worrisome part is that many of our people seem to be ok with accepting that dangerous message.

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Ahjamu Umi is revolutionary organizer with the All African People's Revolutionary Party, adviser, and liberation literature author.