Last year, Juneteenth — a commemoration of the emancipation of enslaved individuals in Texas on June 19, 1865, two years after slavery was legally abolished in the United States—officially became a federal holiday. Unsurprisingly, some corporations and institutions appropriated Juneteenth for commercial purposes, with one notably egregious attempt by Walmart to cash in on the holiday. And this week, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis apologized for an offensive menu item promoting an upcoming “Juneteenth Jamboree” scheduled for June 18.
In the comments section of the museum’s June 3 Facebook post about the event, one user shared a picture of a “Juneteenth Watermelon Salad” for sale in the museum’s food court.
“So y’all decided ‘hey let’s celebrate by perpetuating offensive stereotypes,’” reads the comment. “Y’all really thought this was a good idea? Smh.”
The museum backpedaled quickly, removing the item from the menu and issuing an apology on Facebook with a statement claiming that the team behind the salad “included their staff members who based this choice of food on their own family traditions.” The problem, of course, is that in addition to whatever personal food traditions surround watermelon, the fruit is also associated with an extraordinarily painful history of racist tropes against Black Americans. The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) listed watermelon in a 2018 article titled “Popular and Pervasive Stereotypes of African Americans.”
“Following Emancipation, many Southern African Americans grew and sold watermelons, and it became a symbol of their freedom,” reads the NMAAHC’s post. “Many Southern whites reacted to this self-sufficiency by turning the fruit into a symbol of poverty … To shame black watermelon merchants, popular ads and ephemera, including postcards pictured African Americans stealing, fighting over, or sitting in streets eating watermelon.” The fruit was even branded a public nuisance, curtailing Black communities’ economic empowerment.
Some commenters on the museum’s Facebook post highlighted ways in which the institution could do better to align its actions with anti-racist values, such as donating profits from another menu item to an organization that affirms and elevates Black voices or making admission to the Juneteenth celebration free.
“This should be a free day at the museum so everyone can enjoy the celebration,” said one Facebook user. “It’s disingenuous to have this celebration behind a high priced ticket.”
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a spokesperson for the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis said, “We deeply regret the hurt and the pain that the food offering in our food court has caused, and we apologize. It is unacceptable that this took place in our museum. We renewed our decades long commitment to Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion in 2020 with intensive work, and yet we made this mistake. We fully recognize this work requires constant renewal, and we are actively engaged and invested in that process.”
Levy, the museum’s food service partner, apologized for “a poorly executed attempt to celebrate Juneteenth.”
“With the company’s full encouragement and support, a diverse committee of our team members including our Black leadership, created the menu,” a Levy representative told Hyperallergic. “Our goal was to raise awareness using recipes they had researched and from their personal celebrations. As soon as we recognized the triggering nature of the product and label, we were horrified.”
The controversy points to a general problem of institutional resistance to staffing diversity and to the eagerness of corporate culture to co-opt community and identity movements in the interest of profits. But the onus of rigorous anti-racism is particularly important when the audience is children, who are not only taught racism at home but through popular culture, including food packaging and especially candy.