A meme depicting an African woman, labelled Africans in the US, carrying an African man, labelled Juneteenth. She is pointing two fingers at a European woman labelled capitalism and imperialism, warding her away.

Its Time For Us to Reclaim Juneteenth

The militancy of the Black Power movement and the overall emerging militancy of African and other colonized people signaled a change in our enemy’s approach. If you’ve been paying close attention to the tactics of the capitalist system over the last 25 years, you can see the trend. The mass movements of the past taught the capitalist system that their go-to reliance exclusively upon brutality and ironclad control is no longer a viable strategy. Make no mistake about it, of course, they still utilize brutality, and they always will, but they have made adjustments. They have learned the meaning of Sekou Toure’s axiom that “Truth crushed to earth will rise a thousand times.” 

As a result, instead of relying solely on brute terrorism against the African masses, the capitalist system has begun to sprinkle in neoliberal tactics. This theme was introduced during the late 1960s when the African masses within the U.S. burned more than 300 cities in protest against this racist backward society. The National Guard, police, and mass media were helpless against this onslaught of righteous African rage. The capitalist class responded to this swiftly.  The militancy of the Black Power movement and the overall emerging militancy of African and other colonized people signaled a change in our enemy’s approach. Upon being elected president in 1968 on an anti-African platform, Richard Nixon joined forces with other bourgeoisie chess pieces like David Rockefeller, the patriarch of the Rockefeller capitalist ruling class family, and McGeorge Bundy, president of the Ford Foundation, to formulate the concept of Affirmative Action. This was fueled in part by their study of the Kerner Commission report which predicted that unless the class cleavages within this society that powered institutional racism were addressed, the resulting social unrest could unravel this country. The objective of their Affirmative Action plan was to broaden the African petite-bourgeoisie class. Their thinking in doing this was that a larger African petite-bourgeoisie would create a necessary buffer class that would serve the purpose of corralling the African masses, primarily by projecting a vision of opportunity and success within the capitalist system for any and all Africans who would come to embrace and believe in the American dream.

Besides the increased admission of African college graduates, “minority” contract programs, and other elements of Affirmative Action, by the 1980s, the African petite-bourgeoisie had expanded to the point where Africans, for the first time in the history of this country, had a significantly sized petite-bourgeoisie. The role of this new class would be to create a new segment of African people who personally benefited from the capitalist system and therefore saw their role as being that buffer to protect the capitalist system.

This led to a proliferation of African petite-bourgeoisie politicians in elected offices who advanced policy changes like the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Along with them came an increase in African voices in Hollywood. Together these people would begin franchising the production of ongoing African success stories that complimented the increased focus upon celebrity culture, while the non-profit industrial complex quietly and quickly came to replace the mass culture of independent African organizations that were actually beholden to the interests of the African masses. 

It’s within this environment that the co-option of African political and cultural institutions like Juneteenth has gradually taken place. The elevation of the African petite-bourgeoisie has transformed the optics of the African freedom struggle from its correct standpoint of being a movement aimed at completely overturning the capitalist system that perpetuates our oppression, to optics that define our struggle simply as our individual advancement within the capitalist system. 

This model explains why Juneteenth, a holiday that represents African people breaking the chains of chattel slavery, can now be promoted as a vehicle of deception, provided to us by the U.S. government. In 1938, C.L.R. James wrote the classic book, A History of Pan African Revolt, which chronicled over 300 African slave revolts from Africa, to the Middle Passage, and throughout the entire Western Hemisphere. In it you can see that there were many political, economic, and social reasons why chattel slavery was defeated in the Western Hemisphere, but none were more important than the constant pressure we placed upon this backward system from our constant resistance against it. As a means of preventing that kind of organized resistance from ever rising again, it became incredibly important to turn over the assignment of controlling the rage of our people to a class of African people whose primary interest is in preserving the protecting the capitalist system.

This contradiction explains why multi-national corporations, many of whom got their start from the investment of money acquired from the slave trade, can now co-sponsor Juneteenth commemorations. That’s why we see the very same Wells Fargo and JP Morgan Chase Bank, who used seed money soaked in the blood of our African ancestors to build their financial empire, now attempting to convince you that they care about investing in our people. That’s why police can be seen at Juneteenth commemorations all over this country co-sponsoring, tabling, and recruiting our youth; the very same police who developed as an institution by serving as the violent slave catchers who terrorized our people into turning around and heading back to the oppressive plantation industries in the southern U.S. Today, we are supposed to believe that same police force is now supposed to be at Juneteenth celebrating and serving our community. 

Apple can ruthlessly exploit African coltan in the Congo to finance the profitability of their electronics while honoring Juneteenth with their red, black, and green Apple watches. Walmart will be selling Juneteenth red, black, and green ice cream while they continue to exploit everyone everywhere with unprecedented low wages, oppressive work conditions, and the types of favorable relationships with municipalities that would make a street pimp blush.

All of this is a reflection of the new strategy to fool us into believing that the institutions that have maintained themselves based upon exploiting Africa and African people are interested in respecting our culture and our experiences within this society. 

We must never forget that the only reason that Juneteenth has become a household name in this country is because of the mass protests that took place in 2020. As has historically been the case, our mass movements for justice result in concessions from the capitalist system. But these concessions never force the system to move one inch in our favor. They are just cosmetic changes. Symbolic changes. Ice cream. Watches. Police doing the “Cupid Shuffle”.

We can never forget that Juneteenth started like all of our institutions: as militant expressions of our desire to be free. Up through the 1970s, observations of Juneteenth were always led by our communities. There were no corporate sponsors anywhere to be found and the messages were expressions of our need to get organized. Contrast that to 2022 when the most widely publicized and attended Juneteenth commemorations will be focused on integration within the capitalist system. There will be no expressions for freedom— no demands for an end to neo-colonialism, no heartfelt speeches about the need to build Pan-African unity, nor recitations of the radical and revolutionary histories which come before us. Just empty declarations that we vote, or start a business, or become financially literate. Maybe the message won’t even come pretending to be about our collective uplift. Maybe we’ll just be encouraged not to think about our continued oppression at all, and instead opt for “rest as revolutionary” or our right to “Black joy” come Sunday.  

But if you desire to honor our ancestors whom Juneteenth should be centered around, the absolute best way to do that is to reclaim its dignity. It cannot be a celebration of our potential to advance on an individual basis within the capitalist system. It can only be an acknowledgment of the struggle of our ancestors, who inspire us to continue that struggle without the slightest compromise. We will never have that spirit as long as Chase Bank is underwriting the commemoration. Let’s reclaim Juneteenth by joining organizations fighting for our people. We can also use those platforms to organize legitimate Juneteenth commemorations that will bring Juneteenth back to the days when it carried the same revolutionary spirit as current African Liberation Day commemorations. We must see this as our responsibility. Our people didn’t suffer the unspeakable trauma of slavery just to have it trivialized by some damn ice cream.

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