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For the last 150 years, food has been an essential part of celebrating Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the emancipation of slaves in the United States. For some, celebrating means drinking cold glasses of red drinks and feasting on watermelon or spicy red sausages, symbolizing the blood and resilience of former slaves. For others, it means indulging in traditional black Southern cuisine like fried chicken, collard greens and cornbread.
Why is food such an integral part of Juneteenth? What is the history behind these celebratory meals?
Produced by Kayla Hewitt
- Michael Twitty Author, "The Cooking Gene", @KosherSoul
- Psyche Williams-Forson Associate Professor of American Studies, University of Maryland; Author, "Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power"
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. For many, a Juneteenth celebration would not be complete without an abundance of classic southern dishes, as well as a variety of red food and drinks. So, why is food such an important part of Juneteenth tradition? What is the significance of the color red? How do people in different regions celebrate the holiday?
KOJO NNAMDITell us about you. Do you celebrate Juneteenth? What dishes will you be cooking this year? Joining us now is Psyche Williams-Forson, an associate professor and chair of the department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. She's also the author of the book "Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power." Psyche Williams-Forson, thank you for joining us.
PSYCHE WILLIAMS-FORSONThank you, Kojo, for having me on. Thank you.
NNAMDIAlso joining us is Michael Twitty. Michael Twitty is the James Beard Award-winning author of "The Cooking Gene." Michael Twitty, thank you for joining us.
MICHAEL TWITTYAbsolutely. Absolutely. Hi, Dr. Psyche. How you doing?
WILLIAMS-FORSONI'm great, Michael. How are you?
NNAMDIWe're glad we could bring...
TWITTYDoing all right. Trying to survive.
NNAMDIWe're glad we can bring our guests together in this time of social distancing, (laugh) since they're friends. Psyche Williams-Forson, for many, Juneteenth is family occasion. Did you grow up celebrating the holiday with your family?
WILLIAMS-FORSONAbsolutely, Kojo. Similar to your previous guests, I've been celebrating Juneteenth since, you know, I can remember. As a young girl growing up in Buffalo, New York, it was a weekend-long celebration, and they would block off one of the streets, Jefferson Avenue up there. And there'd be a parade and food and lots of African liberation flags and speeches, and so forth. So, yes, I've been active in celebrating Juneteenth since I was a young girl.
NNAMDIHow about you, Michael Twitty? Did you celebrate Juneteenth as a child, or did your relationship to the holiday change as you became an adult?
TWITTYI learned about it for the first time from -- I don't know if it was a Leo and Diane Dillon children's book when I was growing up, because I'd never heard of it. My grandparents were from Alabama, South Carolina and Virginia. And we had our own emancipation stories. Our emancipation on my father's mother's side actually happened the same county that Psyche's folks come from, Prince Edward County, Virginia.
TWITTYMy great, great grandfather was there for the emancipation when the Civil War ended. So, we didn't know nothing about Juneteenth, and I didn't grow up with it. But once I learned about it, I put it on my African-American sacred calendar of things to observe from year to year.
NNAMDIWhy, Michael Twitty, is food such an important part of celebrating Juneteenth?
TWITTYIt's an important part of celebrating any, you know, celebration within our community. And this really beautiful paraphrase quote from Alice Walker's "The Color Purple." And, in relationship to your last segment, one of the characters says to the other at the very end of the book, um, why do we barbecue and why do we do all this stuff on July 4th, which isn't really about us? And one of the characters says to the other, on July 4th, white people celebrate getting their freedom, and then we celebrate each other.
TWITTYSo, I think that's a big part of it, is this communalism celebrating one another. And the fact that, from West Africa to slavery to freedom, one of the things that was essential to our culture was gathering together to eat, drink and celebrate each other and have black joy.
NNAMDIPsyche Williams-Forson, how have the food traditions associated with Juneteenth evolved over the years? Are the foods eaten now different from those eaten in early celebrations?
WILLIAMS-FORSONWell, I mean, and, you know, it would be good for Michael to chime in, here, but, you know, so much of this...
NNAMDIOh, he will. You know Michael. (laugh)
WILLIAMS-FORSON...so much of this still depends upon regionalism. I mean, we understand Juneteenth and its celebrations in Texas. But, you know, throughout the world -- or throughout the U.S., at least, as folks have celebrated, they've, you know, communed in different ways. Having said that, there are some more or less traditional foods, if you will, that are associated with, as Michael was saying, the celebrating of black joy.
WILLIAMS-FORSONJust in general, you'll always tend to see, you know, maybe collard greens, chicken, barbecue. In this case, you know, red hibiscus or raspberry tea or something -- red drink, as Adrian Miller has discussed, and others. And so whether or not they've evolved, I think how people have prepared foods have more or less changed. And, again, always, I try to remind people that there is no one way to celebrate African-American food culture, and that regionalism is very much a part of that, ribs.
WILLIAMS-FORSONYou know, so the foods that we tend to associate with any holiday, I think, are going to be ever-present. And those that we associate with summer are going to be readily eaten during this particular holiday, as well.
TWITTYSo, you know, I want to piggyback on what Psyche just said. There is this thing -- we are a summer holiday. And in Texas, this would have been like everybody else's August, which is part of the reason why enslaved people in Texas were -- their freedom was delayed, because this would have been the beginning of the cotton chopping season, which is thinning out the cotton. And then, within a month, would've been cotton-picking season. So, they were trying to get one last crop out of the people.
TWITTYSo, this is also watermelon season, which is one of the Juneteenth -- is red, right. And it's also a great time for barbecue, which would've been done in an open pit. And then, later on, as we get to the turn of the 20th century with more industrial foods, here comes the red soda water, the strawberry soda. You know, then for us raspberry tea and hibiscus has kind of evolved. And the red velvet cake and the baked beans and everything that we can throw at, you know, the wall that's red. And that color is very significant, given the heritage of Afro-Texans.
TWITTYBut like, you know, the doctor said, where you are is where your menu evolves from. I mean, you could have a Maryland Juneteenth with crabs, a West Coast Juneteenth with tofu. I mean, it's all a present force.
NNAMDIBut, Michael, why is the color red so significant on Juneteenth?
TWITTYSo, there's no explicit reason, but we think we have a couple of good guesses. The color red is very much symbolic and representative of certain elements of Africanisms that were found deeply in Texas. Brazoria County, Texas, which is right outside of Galveston -- Galveston used to be a slave trade port. Texas was a state long after closing the Atlantic Slave Trade for the United States legally. And we know that a lot of people came from all parts of West Africa, but particularly Western Nigerian, Benin and Togo -- where the Yoruba live -- and also in Congo Angola, where the Bakongo people and their neighbors live.
TWITTYAnd for both of these ethnic groups, which are huge and contributed huge numbers of human beings in exile to the transatlantic slave trade, the color red is part of the sacred culture. In fact, in most West African cultures, there's a deep response to red, which Claude Lévi-Strauss called “the supreme presence of color.” So, we're talking about ideas of the color red symbolizing sacrifice, blood, war, resistance, power, force, maternity, life.
TWITTYAll these ideas went into that, and we think that probably that's dripping down to us in terms of the color red. Some people said that their ancestors were taken to America by the waving of a red cloth -- which we know is not true -- but it was a collective myth-narrative to explain how the Middle Passage could've happened. And so it gets into the foods.
TWITTYAlso, in different West African religious cultures, particularly the Yoruba, you know, different foods have different sacred colors for different (word?). And when you got to Nigeria, they say that the Igbos eat green, the Hausas eat brown, and the Yorubas eat red.
NNAMDISo, that's part of the red tradition of Juneteenth explained by Michael Twitty. Let's go to Barbara in Bethesda, Maryland. Barbara, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BARBARAI am going to be 70 years old tomorrow, and my birthday, as you know, is June 19th. Well, I'm from Cleveland, Ohio. I'm obviously white. I had never known that my birthday was on such a momentous day for the African-American community until about two or three years ago. And, Kojo, I grew up in Beachwood, Ohio.
BARBARAI remember my 7th grade teacher taught us every battle of the Civil War. All we learned about was Antietam, Manassas. And it was just such a bad way to learn about that history. So, I'm thankful for everything you're doing to educate us about Juneteenth. And I will be celebrating in a much different way from now on.
NNAMDIPsyche Williams-Forson, how common is Barbara's experience? And, Barbara, by the way, your birthday is not tomorrow. It's Friday. (laugh) But, Psyche Williams-Forson, go ahead, please.
WILLIAMS-FORSONWell, I mean, it's very common. Again, owing to, or referring back to what the previous guest mentioned, you know, so much of this history is unknown. And folks have not had a reason, if you will -- non-African-American people, but then some African-American people have not had a reason, if you will, to ponder anything more about African-American history than what's been given to us. They should have, but there's been no promotion of any of this material or information through our school systems.
WILLIAMS-FORSONYou know, as Michael mentioned, I'm from Prince Edward County, which is the last county to desegregate in the Brown v. Board of Topeka, Kansas case. And, growing up in my formative years in Prince Edward County, we were not taught anything at all about the history of Prince Edward County in the Brown case. And so, here you have generations of folks who are growing up in a historic area, who have no knowledge of their own history. And that's by design, right, because if you keep folks unaware of their history, then they have absolutely little or no clue about their future or their present.
WILLIAMS-FORSONAnd so, not at all am I surprised, and, you know, it's because of what's happening right now, collectively, individually throughout the world and the attention that's being brought to the systemic inequalities, violence, brutalities, aggressions, biases, etcetera, that we are even getting the levels of attention now that are long, long, long overdue.
NNAMDIMichael Twitty, food aside, there are other regional differences in the celebration of Juneteenth. How might Juneteenth celebrations in Texas differ from the ones you might find in our region?
TWITTYI think that, you know, we tend to have commemorative programming, wherein Texas, there were rodeos and quilting bees and, you know, all these different aspects of southern folk life, particularly unique to Texas. I mean, Texas was the home of black cattlemen. I mean, one-third of the cowboys in that culture was black American, right. And not just black American, but it was something that had been passed down for centuries, the culture of cattle raising through the Fulani and other people who had come over in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
TWITTYAnd just beyond that, Texas was a melting pot of black culture. I mean, it was people who had been there since the time of the Spanish and the Mexican owning of the land. There had been people who were Afro-Creole from Louisiana, people who were Gullah Geechee, who were brought over in the domestic slave trade. People who came from the upper South, from Tennessee and Virginia and Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland.
TWITTYAnd all these cultures, on top of the folks coming in from Africa, met in Texas. So, that means there was such a rich stew of the folk life that was found there. And that has persisted for generations in the way that Afro-Texans celebrate Juneteenth, versus other parts of black America.
NNAMDIPsyche Williams-Forson, food is not only an important part of African-American culture on Juneteenth. How do you see food as a reflection of power in black culture?
WILLIAMS-FORSONWell, you know, food is one of those material objects that African-Americans and African peoples before that have always had access to or been in contact with, as Michael has well explained. Part of our labor -- or, essentially, our labor is what brought us here, you know, what led us to be brought here. And so, you know, we've had vast knowledges of agricultural systems and of harvesting and so forth -- and preparation and so forth.
WILLIAMS-FORSONAnd having said that, however, these things are not innate. We, African people, studied these cycles and they studied what worked and they studied the land and the soil, and so forth. And so it's always a mistake to assume that as Jessica Harris -- you know, noted culinary historian Jessica Harris has written, and others, about, you know, the god of spit and saucepan having breathed life into African-American women, in particular, and they somehow learned to cook.
WILLIAMS-FORSONNot the case. Many African and African-American women were harmed, maimed, killed because they didn't know. And so part of that power dynamics is infused in having lack of acknowledgement around the food cultures that African-American people have contributed to the United States and beyond.
WILLIAMS-FORSONToni Tipton-Martin talks about this very well in her recent books "Jubilee" and also "The Jemima Code." Michael Twitty talks about this, of course, and so many other black culinary historians, Fred Opie. But, essentially, what I look at is how power through images have been used to reinforce particular kinds of stereotypes. We see this going on right now with the whole Aunt Jemima conversation that's taking place today, literally today, based on the decision of Quaker Oats.
WILLIAMS-FORSONSo, you know, power is very much inherent in food culture, not just in terms of what's cooked, what's not cooked, but who has access to food. Where foods are obtained, how they are prepared, and also absolutely in the imagery that we see of black people and food, watermelon, chicken-loving, those kinds of stereotypes that are perpetual and that continue to be circulating in the world, quite frankly.
NNAMDIMichael Twitty, George in Arlington emailed to ask: Do vegan African-Americans have special ways to celebrate the day with food?
TWITTYI mean, you're working with the vegetable kingdom. Why not? I mean, you have delirious amounts of things you can celebrate Juneteenth with. I mean, beets alone, although I don't think -- Dr., I don't know if beets were on your table, but I never had a beet growing up at all, at all. So, I don't know if that fits for Juneteenth, but, I mean, why not?
NNAMDIIt worked for me.
TWITTYI mean, there are ways to make these things evolve.
NNAMDIYeah, that worked for me. Here now is Sophie in Annapolis, Maryland. Sophie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SOPHIEHello. Good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call, Kojo. And I'm listening, and I'm a white person. And I have to say I feel like celebrating Juneteenth now more than July 4th, after learning about it. I grew up and didn't -- was not educated about it at all. It was a very watered-down education. That's what I'm seeing, as well, and I'm also a teacher, and definitely going to take that up with my students.
SOPHIEBut, you know, I just get disgusted and outraged, the more I learn. And so I'm putting that disgust and outrage into action. And I just really appreciate your show, and thank you for listening.
NNAMDIThank you for calling. I think Laura in Fairfax, Virginia has a similar question or comment. Laura, your turn.
LAURAHi. Yes, I have had a very similar experience, but my experience is more recent, since I've been in high school the past few years, and we also have never learned about Juneteenth. So, I just wanted to call in and ask how non-black people can celebrate this Juneteenth in a respectful, but still informative way.
WILLIAMS-FORSONThank you for those questions. You know, I think as I've been listening to the callers, it's wonderful that you all are interesting in celebrating. I think there are two things. Certainly, I would seek out your local communities and see some of the ways in which they are already commemorating Juneteenth. If you're in Fairfax, then the Alexandria African-American Museum or Black History Museum most likely is having some kind of celebration.
WILLIAMS-FORSONBut I want to push people to go beyond the celebration. You know, Juneteenth is a day and a weekend, but understand and immerse yourself in what constitutes black culture and black life, as Michael said, and black joy. And then, beyond that, live your life in a way that you understand the equality of all people, and particularly of black people.
WILLIAMS-FORSONYou know, in this particular moment, while folks are out marching and so forth and corporations are putting up banners that say “We support Black Lives Matter,” all of that is great as rhetoric, but it needs to go beyond that. What practices are you engaging in on a day-to-day basis that helps to disrupt and dismantle the systems of inequality and just plain racism that we see every day?
WILLIAMS-FORSONIt means nothing for you to celebrate and be joyful and dance and sing and eat and all the other things, purchase things and whatnot, in celebration of this holiday, and then live your life in a way that you ignore the basic day-to-day needs and existence for equality of black people. That's a complete antithesis, and I would urge people to move beyond just the one day and to being to live your life in a way that you don't perpetuate the racist practices that are being, on a daily basis, performed in this society. So, that would be the way that I would encourage people to actually celebrate Juneteenth and not just, you know, eat foods and play music on a particular day.
NNAMDIMichael Twitty, how have the culinary traditions of Juneteenth been passed down from generation to generation, and what might disrupt this transmission of knowledge?
TWITTYWell, I think I'm going to answer the second part of the question first. We have tremendous land loss, the African-Americans. And, you know, a lot of folks who came from the African-Texan heritage have lost land. I mean, why do I say this? It means creating black spaces where the culture can be observed. We have our own set of practices regarding land and nature conservation, regarding how areas where we cook, areas where we farm shifting cultivation.
TWITTYThere are very specific items that go along with black agrarian culture and black pastoral culture. I mean, the ranging of cattle, the raising of animals, open grazing. And it's really hard to pass those things down without space and without time, which are, you know, are two of the main ingredients in history. So, if you don't have the time, because you're an essential employee, which we tend to have always been, and you don't have the space because you're losing your land, you're being redlined, the land that you're given is not the best.
TWITTYI mean, there are all these different factors that go into food transmission from generation to generation, but other cultures don't have to face the same way we do. So, I would say, that's a big part of it. I mean, can you have that country barbecue on your folks' property, in your home place? What about in your own city? Are you safe to do that, because of law enforcement overreach? Or do you just not have the time, because this is not a holiday that all of us can celebrate yet, because it's not a day we can take off. All those factors to be taken into consideration.
NNAMDIMichael, how have black culinary traditions been maintained by black chefs? And have they been able to elevate those traditions in American culture?
TWITTYWell, I mean, you know, we've always elevated it. We've always been very elevated. The question is: What happens when our food goes out of our hands? I would say that there's so many spectacular chefs. I was talking to three of my favorites in our neighboring city of Philadelphia, and talking to them about how they come up with new things. I mean, we have Chef Shambra and Chef Omar and Chef Kurt Evans, all of whom are African-American and Muslim.
NNAMDIOnly got about 30 seconds left.
TWITTYYes, that have come up with their own ways to celebrate the holiday and incorporate halal traditions. So, I mean, it's an opportunity to be creative.
NNAMDIMichael Twitty is the James Beard Award-winning author of "The Cooking Gene." Psyche Williams-Folson is an associate professor and chair of the department of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park and author of the book "Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power." Thank you both for joining us.
NNAMDII wanted to take a moment to remember Maiesha Rashad, known as the first lady of go-go. She fronted Maiesha Rashad and the Hip Huggers, one of the premier bands at the height of go-go's popularity. She has now passed on. Our condolences to her family.
NNAMDIThe segment on culinary traditions of Juneteenth was produced by Kayla Hewitt, and our conversation about the history and current celebrations of the holiday was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Coming up tomorrow, the braver we are, the luckier we get, so writes northern Virginian native author and activist Glennon Doyle in "Untamed," her latest New York Times bestselling memoir. She joins us to discuss female empowerment and what it means to be a woman today, as well as her local roots here in the Washington region. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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