By Nayaba Arinde
As the country prepares to acknowledge the second national government-sanctioned Juneteenth19 federal holiday, advocates say Black recognition events like Juneeteenth, Kwanzaa, and Black History Month have been commercialized to the nth power, even by well-meaning, earnest proponents recognizing the fight of African descendants in America for real equality and real equity.
“Juneteenth without reparations lacks real substance and commitment by the national, state, and city to pay us back from the ill-gotten gains from slavery,” City Councilmember Charles Barron told the Amsterdam News. “While no amount of money can repair and ease the effects of the death and destruction of our people, we at least need some compensation. They stole us. They sold us. They owe us.”
To that end, Barron said, as he entered a June 8 meeting at City Hall, he is the co-sponsor of the City Contract Disclosure Act bill regarding past engagement in slavery, which was submitted to the Committee on Contracts as part of a Juneteenth package of bills.
“This Local Law calls for all the corporations that participated in the enslavement of our people to be registered with the city before receiving any contracts with the city.”
The Local Law is co-sponsored by more than a dozen City Council members in addition to Barron, including Barron, Kristin Richardson Jordan, Crystal Hudson, Chi A. Osse, Sandra Nurse, Mercedes Narcisse, and Tiffany Cabán.
It aims to “amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to the disclosure of information regarding past engagement in slavery by city contractors.”
The proposed bill said: “In recent years, companies in existence today have discovered and revealed that they had engaged in and/or profited from the commerce generated by the trade or use of the labor of enslaved Africans during the period of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, from approximately 1441 to 1888. It has been reported that some large companies, for example, Aetna, a company that apparently insured slaveholder interests in enslaved people in the case of their death or damage, have been found to have directly profited from such commerce. J.P. Morgan Chase issued a letter of apology after it discovered that two of its predecessor companies actually participated in the slave trade and owned enslaved people it had taken as collateral for loans. J.P. Morgan Chase attributed the discoveries to the requirement of disclosure for contractors of the City of Chicago.”
The bill continued, “While it is specifically not the intent of this legislation that the question of past links to slavery serve as a litmus test to determine who the city should do business with, such information is important for the city and the country as they reappraise the history of slavery as a result of these new findings. Accordingly, this local law would require companies doing business with the city to search their pasts and reveal whether they have engaged in or profited from slavery.”
It would take effect 120 days after it becomes law.
Barron cited Aetna as one such company that reportedly partook in the enslavement era of trafficked Africans for economic benefit. Barron asked, “Why should they be allowed to get a healthcare contract with New York when they destroyed our health care of enslaved Africans?”
The Amsterdam News reached out to the Aetna Corporation Contact Center and their media office, but was unable to get a response by press time.
Calls for reparations to local, state, and national U.S. governments are not new demands. In February 2005, reporter Frankie Edozien wrote about how city lawmakers were intensifying a push to force companies that do business with the city to disclose whether they profited from slavery.
“Hearings [were held then] on legislation that would require city contractors to delve into their histories.”
At that time, Harlem’s Councilmember Bill Perkins said, “We’re hoping that these hearings will bring to light the fact that there had been a history of slavery in this city, that there are some corporations that might have been a part of that history.”
Chicago established a similar law in 2002, Edozien reported said, “JPMorgan Chase found that two banks it once owned accepted 13,000 slaves as collateral for loans made to Louisiana plantation owners in the 1800s.”
Barron proposed his Queen Mother Moore Bill to set up a commission looking into the impact of slavery. There were no hearings however.
Back in 2015, Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Chris Smith (R-NJ) sponsored their “Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act of 2015.” It determined that large corporations must disclose how they were at that time, employing efforts to ensure that their products or services were not the results of modern-day slavery, human trafficking, or child labor.
In the “freedom isn’t free” line of thinking, a whole segment of the city is fighting for reparations, as witnessed by last week’s rally at the African Ground. Last week at a rally at the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan, the December 12th Movement, National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), and Barron – who proposed community participation in the states’ reparations commission and; urge folk to challenge the proposed Albany state government-controlled commission on reparations.
“At the end of its legislative session, New York State finally passed a reparations bill. That is a victory. But for Black people, this is one of those victories [that] is dripping with defeat,” December 12th Movement member Attorney Roger Wareham told the Amsterdam News. “The New York State Community Commission on Reparations Remedies differs markedly from the version [that] was originally put forward by then-Assemblymember Charles Barron, and passed by consecutive sessions of the Assembly.”
That version, he noted, was unique among all the reparations legislation passed so far in the United States. “It provided for 11 commission members, six of whom would be selected by three community organizations [that] had decades-long experience in the struggle for reparations,” wareham said. “The version [that] was passed, awaiting the signature of Gov. Hochul, places the selection of all commission members in the hands of the government: three by the Governor (Hochul), three by the speaker of the Assembly (Heastie), three by the Temporary President of the Senate (Stewart-Cousins).
However, the activist lawyer said, an “unprecedented opportunity to provide majority community input into the process of determining our reparations fell victim to Albany close-mindedness, short-sightedness, and political expediency.”
The NYC decades-long reparations struggle continues, with the call for reparations at last being part of the national mainstream dialogue.
“We applaud those Assembly and Senate members who fought on principle for community control. The December 12th Movement views this legislation as something our community will have to work with, which will require that we all actively monitor to ensure the accountability of our elected officials,” Wareham said.
New Jersey-based activist Divine Allah told the Amsterdam News, “We demand reparations. The ‘I was gonna fight for liberation, but I didn’t get a grant,’ is too prominent a position, running side by side with popularized patronizing platitudes and cliche-themed condescending events, which actually do nothing to stop our righteous demands.”
The recent Trenton City Council candidate, and Black Panther Youth Minister added, “The young people are ready. They are telling President Joseph Robinette Biden to ‘Cut the check.’ They have watched us fight for years, and now their demand is getting louder.”
“Juneteenth should be celebrated for one week for every month of the year,” said Dentis M. Shaw, a North Carolina-based activist and self-described farm sharecropper, and military veteran.”
When he thinks of Juneteenth, he told the Amsterdam News, it must be about the “honoring of African ancestry, African history, and the coming to America on slave ships to work in the cotton fields, tobacco fields, cucumber fields, etc. June 19th is the day every year that we recognize as a day to honor African history, and the hard work of many Africans—their lives in America, for this nation. I believe because of the history of our African people, we should recognize all 12 months of the year, 17 days every month, 84 days total.”
His solution to 100s of years of unacknowledged free labor, is to establish that; from the 13th to the 19th of every month, those seven days should be recognized for the lives given by Africans brought to America working hard for 6 days, resting on the 7th, “as God did when He made and created the Earth, there is a connection I do believe.”
As it stands right now, said Shaw, the federal holiday on the 19th of June should be “Celebrated with the honoring of ALL SLAVES, our Black ancestors, and the life price that they paid for ALL BLACK PEOPLE, verbally abused, beatings—and yes, many hung and killed.”
Shaw concluded that the people must “honor our Black brothers and our sisters [EnSlaved] from Africa—84 days of the year; 13–19 January to December. They deserve it all. We have our freedom and great lives today. Thank you all.
“For those 84 days every year, we should recognize and honor that our ancestors [so-called slaves] gave their lives for how we as African Americans live now.”
Advocates repeat that the day or days of Juneteenth should not be about commercialization, but compensation and culture; not the ongoing collateral damage of Black people in the building of a nation.
Last year, the Amsterdam News reported on the ill-conceived “Juneteenth red velvet and cheesecake ice cream” and “It’s the Freedom for Me” napkins and plates, and panned corporate Juneteenth paraphernalia. “Companies like Walmart were dragged on social media.”
“Corporate America has found a way to commercialize the emancipation of enslaved people,” wrote Jezebel.com’s Khalisa Rae. “America loves to co-opt a revolution and sell it back to people like they’re doing us a favor.”
This coming Monday, June 19, is the 159th anniversary of the “official end” of slavery in Galveston, Texas, a date now known as Juneteenth.
While some people dispute the story that it was white Union Army General Gordon Granger who rode into Galveston on June 19, 1865, and told 250,000 enslaved men, women, and children that the Civil War had been over for two years, since President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation banned slavery in Southern states on January 1, 1863; a version from the Juneteenth Legacy Project and Juneteenth National Observance Foundation, among other people, say it was Black union soldiers who informed Galveston’s Black folk of the end of the war.
“We know slavery did continue to take place after that,” said diversity coach Kim Crowder. “While many immediately packed up and headed north and to other parts of the nation, others stayed, working on the plantation, sharecropping, and providing for their families the best way they could.”
Barron said that keeping the relevance of Juneteenth is essential. “Kwanzaa, Black History Month, and now Juneteenth have been co-opted and commercialized by corporate America, but we have to strive to keep the authenticity of our movement,” he said. “We are resilient, and fighting for what is ours is what we have always done. It is us.”