As June comes to an end, marginalized people like me find ourselves in recovery from a draining dizziness. We’ve run through a carnival of corruption involving masterful public relations magicians, merry-go-rounds of promises of solidarity that change direction mid-ride, prizes for rigged mind games, and sugarcoated lies about a relationship between abused people and those in privilege and power. This corruption carnival, themed as a joyful display for highlighting oppressed people through acknowledgment of Juneteenth and Pride, appropriates celebrations created by and for persecuted populations. These occasions are intended for expressing joy, releasing pain, commemorating resistance, and acknowledging generations of tenacious people. But they have devolved into a performative opportunity for bad actors to feign solidarity, assuage guilt, and, of course, take part in the classic American convention: making a profit at the expense of the historically victimized. 

As we saw this year, companies and brands such as Target and Bud Light tiptoed between pride and prejudice. 

In 2019, we were dazzled into purchasing counterfeit solidarity souvenirs: rainbow pajamas and queer-affirming aluminum beer bottles. Four years later, these two scam artists now ask for our sympathy as they abandon their Pride merchandise displays and transgender spokespeople in the face of queerphobic naysayers, justifying their cowardice as caution. 

I remember visiting another vendor at this sideshow and being handed a latte by a beautifully queer barista, proudly sporting a Pride shirt with their company logo: Starbucks. Even through the swirling chatter about bashing unions and underpaid workers, Starbucks posed as having “pride” in supporting its LGBTQ+ staff’s identities.

But Starbucks contradicts its espoused solidarity with LGBTQ+ workers through its labor violations. Today, Starbucks workers around the country are striking in response to what they’ve reported as an attack on Pride celebrations, and union workers have shared that they’ve been forced to remove Pride decorations and flags at stores across the country. Starbucks, a once “proud supporter of LGBTQ practices,” appears to be another abuser, gaslighting oppressed people through a confusing funhouse of shifting floors and distorting mirrors. 

Where are these companies, in their celebrations of Pride, “highlighting” the contributions of Black and Latine leaders like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and the army of Stonewall warriors, who, over the course of five days in Greenwich Village in June and July of 1969, fought back against violent police harassment and protected their queer communities? Where were the Marsha “P.J.” sets? Beer bottles commemorating Rivera’s Molotov cocktails? QR codes to learn about the origins of ball, voguing, and house music? Bud Light and Target were absent in elevating the actual story of Pride—a commemoration of unapologetic queer gangster—because they were never about that life. 

Let’s look now at the newfound interest in Juneteenth, a century-and-a-half-old liberation celebration that everyone, except for Black people, overlooked until 2020. Somewhere at the intersection of the white guilt and the Black grief that reverberated following the 2020 killing of George Floyd, there was a glimmering opportunity for disingenuous people in power to gain favor with the abused.

Perhaps the most salient hypnotizing magician in this sideshow is Amazon, which finds itself mired in legal action on behalf of both workers and consumers. Amazon has set low expectations for its participation in liberation holidays; just as it doesn’t give its delivery workers a bathroom break during the workday, it doesn’t give workers a paid day off for Juneteenth.

Still—and I wish I was kidding—Amazon hosted a Juneteenth concert that people could only access through streaming on their Amazon Prime Music account.  

But it’s Bank of America, perhaps, that has the more egregious track record for participation in the cycle of abuse. In 2022, ironically, Bank of America audaciously tweeted, “Juneteenth is a moment to reflect and learn. Today, we honor all those who have fought and continue fighting for racial equality. Their resilience and determination is unmatched. As we learn from the past, we can continue pushing for progress and change.” 

But since 2011 alone, Bank of America has continuously found itself on the losing end of litigation aimed at resolving its heinous contributions to systemic racism and classism. It has been ordered to pay millions for loan discrimination against Black and Latino customers. It has been sued successfully for racially motivated hiring discrimination. There’s recorded evidence of intentional negligence of foreclosed properties in Black neighborhoods in 201 American cities. And a study shows that Black employees of the bank have less than a quarter of the chance that their white colleagues have to ascend to executive-level leadership. 

Fortunately, even as we circulate annually through these rickety rides, as operators abandon the levers and leave us dangling, there’s hope for those who make it to the end and exit the gates.

June remains a sacred month for authentic Blackness, queerness, and artistry, especially here in Durham. For this, we can acknowledge local Black powerhouses such as Jesse Huddleston and Aya Shabu who assume leadership roles in coordinating the Durham LGBTQ Center’s Pride celebration and the Durham Juneteenth Collective’s Juneteenth events, respectively. 

“As one of the Black and queer co-chairs of Pride: Durham, NC, I can confidently say that we are intentional in protecting local LGBTQ+ people and preserving LGBTQ+ culture, particularly when it involves local Black, brown, and Indigenous folks,” Huddleston tells me. “Lots of our vendors and talent authentically represent Durham, and we do our best to center those most marginalized and impacted by systems of injustice.”

Similarly, for three consecutive years I’ve taken part in the Village of Wisdom’s Hayti Heritage Juneteenth celebration, just one event in a series that take place around the city. I watched as Village of Wisdom’s Shabu, a central curator, consulted with community members to incorporate the history of Durham’s Hayti Heritage community in the flow of the celebrations. This year, I, along with two other powerful sisters from Durham, gave consecutive presentations to a crowd who stood on the back steps of the Hayti Heritage center. We educated an audience on how the history of the Hayti—intentionally named to represent its similarities to the self-liberated country of Haiti—directly reflects the self-determination of Black people, following centuries of enslavement. We referenced, for example, how the veve, that for 130 years has rested atop the Hayti’s steeple, is a symbol that pays homage to Erzulie, the Haitian Mother Mary and Goddess of Love.  

Achieving such empowering, sacred, and uplifting traditions requires the institutional knowledge of Black communities and their dedication to preserving the national and local history of places like Durham. The Juneteenth Collective’s events symbolize Black familial collectivization, as they bring the consistently dedicated community residents to participate in a celebration created of, by, and for Black people.

Although mainstream America has made a total mess and mockery of Pride celebrations, and seemingly follows the same path with Juneteenth, we have an opportunity to learn from the past and retake the wheel. We won’t insult change-agency by asking for an audience as we sit in a state of “reflective learning.” As with any festival, carnival, or sponsored event, we must have rules for admission into our celebrations. For those who’ve sought to make profit from our abuse and maintain power through our persecution, we say: 

No celebration without compensation. 

No celebration without reconciliation. 

No celebration without memorialization.

No celebration without self-determination.

No highlighting while gaslighting.

Desmera Gatewood is a neurodivergent, Black, non-binary writer and organization development practitioner. They get joy from parenting, sudoku competitions, and
group facilitation.

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