For many Black Americans, Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the day the last enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learned of their liberty from Union soldiers, is filled with joy, bubbling strawberry sodas, and a chance to come together, with plenty of food in tow. The holiday—which has yet to become ingrained in the widespread American calendar—has long served as African Americans’ independence day, one speckled with plumes of barbecue smoke, wedges of pink watermelon and other red-stained foods (an everlasting symbol of perseverance and hardship), and an opportunity to reflect.
This year will look a little different, largely due to a confluence of stay-at-home orders and a Black Lives Matter movement that has gained momentum in every corner of America. Efforts for families and friends to get together have been somewhat thwarted, but cooking, drinking, reflecting, and storytelling still remain integral.
For Margaret Barrow, the founder and CEO of Brooklyn Granola and Borough of Manhattan Community College professor, this year’s Juneteenth serves as an opportunity to wield her teaching background and inform as many people as she can about this chapter in American history.
“These holidays that have to do with Black and brown people in America, there’s such a dark history,” she says. “A lot of it has been hidden from our education, and if you hide these things, then those who are responsible don’t have to be responsible.”
Margaret has pledged to reach out to people in her community to jumpstart those difficult conversations—the kinds of conversations that hark back to history, fueling what we can do today to move forward. And while that reeducation will certainly be at the forefront, she also expects the celebration to include a colorful, vegan dish—something that she can pass on to her children, an edible token of what Juneteenth means to her.
For others, food lends itself as a tangible symbol, a way to viscerally pay homage to their ancestors. Celeste Croxton-Tate, the owner of spice store Lyndigo Spice in Boston, Massachusetts, always prepares candied yams and macaroni and cheese—her sons’ favorites—but it’s her stewed okra that is much more meaningful on Juneteenth.
“[Okra] was one of the seeds that was brought over from Africa,” she explains. “The slaves inherently knew that they weren’t coming back, so they put okra seeds in their head wraps, and that’s how [the seeds] got over here.”
Celeste may ply her family with hunks of fried chicken and spoonfuls of stewed okra, but soul food staples are hardly the only cuisine you’ll find on the table. Lilian Umurungi-Jung, the founder and owner of Mumgry, a nut butter company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, looks to East Africa for inspiration. Over plates of matoke spinach peanut sauce, stacks of chapati (a flatbread you can find as readily in East Africa as you can in South Asia), and triangles of soft mandazi, an African doughnut speckled with lemon zest, Lilian and her family commemorate Juneteenth’s historical significance. “Food creates the connection between me, my friends, and family,” she says. “If there’s no food, it’s not a celebration.”
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Just as food serves as an inherent Juneteenth necessity, drinks are also equally important. Strawberry soda and red punch are synonymous with celebrations, an ode to kola nuts and hibiscus, that, like okra seeds, made their way over to America due to the transatlantic slave trade.
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Morgan Siegel, the owner of Jeddah’s Tea in Durham, North Carolina, doesn’t have a particular dish she pulls out on Juneteenth every year, but she does usher in celebrations with bissap, a hibiscus tea with roots in East and West Africa. Along with hibiscus, it’s often stirred with orange blossom, cinnamon, and vanilla; but depending on where you look in the African diaspora, the ingredients change. For instance, bissap in the Caribbean islands might boast sorrel.
“We celebrate with bissap because it tells the story of the diaspora, and it speaks volumes not only to the agricultural capacity, but to the rich history of West Africa prior to the transatlantic trade,” Morgan says. “We are able to celebrate in a new space while honoring our ancestors.”
And while many Black communities around the country do commemorate this day of emancipation, others find that Juneteenth isn’t a holiday that’s starred on their calendar.
For Ashley Rouse, the founder and CEO of Trade Street Jam Co., Juneteenth isn’t a reason to celebrate. Holidays, for her, are birthdays and graduations—happy events—and Juneteenth is the antithesis of joy.
“It’s a symbol of unfulfilled promises,” Ashley says of Juneteenth, “something that was abolished and then years later was still going on.”
She understands that what she says may sound negative, but the policing of Black bodies and unjust murders of innocent people are something she’s grown up with—and something she’ll struggle with for the rest of her life. Even with Juneteenth arriving in the midst of national protests, this year is no different.
“For me, there’s nothing to celebrate,” she says.
Ashley is hardly the only one to share these sentiments. Cookbook author and chef Alexander Smalls also doesn’t observe the holiday. He never grew up sipping strawberry soda with his family; recently, his mother explained to him that like the Fourth of July, Juneteenth isn’t defined by the principles of independence or freedom. According to her, it’s just a smokescreen, a ruse crafted by others that now merely arrives with the commercial excuse to spend money.
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“While historically it is an intersection in the struggle for freedom, I look at [Juneteenth] more so as a reminder of the journey of Black people in America, who, having arrived in this country as someone’s possession, were given the illusion of freedom by those holding them hostage,” Alexander says.
But for those who do celebrate, eating and drinking fundamentally remain an implicit part of the day. And for Black Americans, this understanding is neither new, nor exclusive, to Juneteenth.
“One of the interesting experiences as an African American is food and family have always been a way for us to celebrate [and] connect,” Brett Wright, the founder of Lomar Farms, a beeswax and honey company in Palisades, New York, says.
That food might look different from table to table, from city to city, from state to state, but its symbolic purpose stays the same, a form of nourishment that goes far beyond the human necessity of consumption.
This Juneteenth, for Brett, means gathering with his family over a plate of shrimp and grits, opening up discussion not only about the end of slavery in America, but also, more presently, about the current political climate.
“Food is that experience that allows people to sit and look at each other and have real conversations and dialogue that are meaningful,” Brett says. “It all starts over a plate of food.”
Header images courtesy of Alexander Smalls, Ashley Rouse, Celeste Croxton-Tate, and Brett Wright.