It gets even more complicated because Juneteenth acknowledges the notion that while Black enslaved people in the Confederate states were granted freedom by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, some 250,000 remained enslaved in Texas 2½ years later. Yet, I am found celebrating each year: proud to be Black and Black being proud. I am found smiling and dancing the Electric Slide with pieces of grilled corn creviced between my teeth. I am surrounded by Black family, joy and cheer. I hold these tensions, and they will never go away.
With the recent killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Dion Johnson, Nina Pop, Riah Milton, Dominique Fells, Monika Diamond, George Floyd and countless more, anti-racism protests have risen globally. The voices of Black people are being heard in a way that they have never quite been heard before. And Black people, we’re tired. (By the way, I consider lowercase “black” to be a color, not a race, so I use uppercase to refer to people from the African diaspora.)
Juneteenth serves both as a celebration of the excavation from enslavement and a remembrance of my oppression. The holiday has always been centered on memories of the past and those who occupied it. It’s that place in the middle where I find my Blackness, hung in the pendulum somewhere between great pride and great anguish.
This Juneteenth, I’m in mourning. But this time it’s different. I am not alone. I don’t feel like drinking red soda or watching the fireworks. I don’t feel like anointing my cast-irons with bacon grease and filling them almost to the brim with buttermilk cornbread. I don’t feel like dancing to either version of “Before I Let Go” or playing a game of Spades with my competitive loved ones. I want to march with hundreds of thousands around the globe chanting “No Justice, No Peace,” wearing my Black Lives Matter T-shirt and a medical mask. This Juneteenth, I’ll take a moment of silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the exact time officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, knelt on the neck of George Floyd, killing him. I’ve heard that this too shall pass; I don’t want it to pass. I want to deal with it. I want to feel it. I want to remember.
Breonna, Ahmaud, Tony, Dion, Nina, Riah, Dominique, Monika, George: Their humanities don’t escape me. I can’t stop thinking of them as though they were my brother or sister or cousin or uncle, as though we were close friends from junior high school, as though they knew me and I knew them. I can’t stop thinking about who they were. Did they like eating breakfast? What was their favorite song? What made them angry? What made them happy? Who were they?
Lately, I find myself at the altar of the barbecue pit, finding comfort in the smoke and quiescence of gentle flames. I have the proclivity to make jerk chicken, fry okra, and douse mango chutney and hot pepper sauce on outrageous portions of rice. The pit is that holy meeting place where time slows, patience is required, and where sight, sound, smell, intuition and the ancestors guide you. It’s a romance between opposites, hot and cool; it’s a place for reflection and contemplation.
The practice of barbecue has long existed in the hands and nostrils of my people. Black families carry recycled soda bottles filled to the brim with jerk marinade to the fire. We pour it over chicken, pork, raccoon and rabbit. Black coals burn and turn to ash. The smoke, carried away in the wind, is lost and forgotten, but its fragrance cannot be hidden.
Most commonly associated with Jamaican cuisine, the “jerk” technique has a mysterious origin and is believed to be a product of enslavement. It is widely recounted that the earliest uses of jerk cooking date to 1655 by a group of once-enslaved Africans known as the Maroons, living in the upper Blue Mountain region of Jamaica. Today, the technique often involves marinating meats in spices such as pimento, Scotch bonnet peppers, browning sauce, thyme and pepper for hours, up to overnight, then grilling them over an open fire, low and slow.
This Juneteenth, I will make a spread informed by the killings of my beloved sisters and brothers by police. I will serve my jerk chicken and mango chutney. Hot pepper for the pain and anguish of an American horror story from enslavement to modern-day policing. A searing on the hot grates for the lynchings and oppression of my people. Fire for the collapsing of white supremacist ideology and idolatry. Vanishing smoke for the souls of Black lives killed by the hands of whites in power. Mango chutney for the sweet taste of liberation that will one day be ours. And a slice of red velvet cake for the innocent Black blood that was shed.
Black food. Black song. Black music. Black lyric. Black life. Black liberation. Black power. Black history. Black narrative. Black genius. Juneteenth honors you. You are my menu.
Food is an essential part of the Juneteenth celebrations, as it is the genetic coding of Black culinary ingenuity, our making a way out of no way, our improvisation. Food also has the ability to connect older generations to new ones. Michael W. Twitty, a culinary historian and the author of “The Cooking Gene,” recently tweeted, “Food connects racial or ethnic identity with gender, sexuality, class, national origin, disability, nutrition, health and political social movements and a variety of disparities. … Food is inherently political and food is inherently part of how all of these wheel back to ‘race.’”
Our food is our power. It is our protest. It is us. This Juneteenth, we eat from a table that has been built by our ancestors. We share and we feast. This is the tradition. This is my blackout.
Being Black in America is complicated. It is layered. It is complex. Black people live on the margins of survival, often protecting the survival of others at the expense of their own. We find ourselves fighting against injustice while being exhausted. We are not afforded the privilege of a break. We are marginalized yet relied upon. We are told to dream big while navigating the corporate ladders of executive whiteness and power. Celebration and oppression share the same space in the Black community. There is no other place we can go to distance ourselves from our pain. We must embrace it. We hope for, pray for and march for justice at the perils of injustice. Being Black in America is a paradox. But here we are. Though taunted by a scandalous history of traumas and displacement, we persevere. We are the elegant flowers blossomed out of the fractured concrete of democracy. To survive, we must dream, we must reimagine to remain alive. Reaching for joy has always been our weapon and our strength. Out of our suffering, a movement toward justice was birthed: Black Lives Matter.
George Floyd died in handcuffs, body and face pinned to the ground by the knee of his white oppressor, whose job it was to protect him. George died no more free than an enslaved Black man hung from a tree. It was a lynching. This is America.
Maybe this Juneteenth will be different. For Black people, this is a day for us to honor Breonna, Ahmaud, Tony, Dion, Nina, Riah, Dominique, Monika and George; our sisters and our brothers. Maybe the day will still carry its paradoxes, the sorrow of enslavement and the celebration of emancipation. We will fire up our grills and ’cue. We will sing our national anthem. We will bless the earth with our fragrance, and our voices will be heard.
Maybe white people will use this day as an opportunity to have difficult conversations about race and to evolve. Maybe white people will curate a “We Must Overcome” playlist featuring Black artists exclusively. Maybe we will go beyond sipping the Kool-Aid of sharing hashtags and actually begin to do the work of dismantling white supremacy, one brick at a time. My thoughts: Keep the sympathy. Lean in. Make your listening active and proactive. Do something.
Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Dion Johnson, Nina Pop, Riah Milton, Dominique Fells, Monika Diamond, George Floyd: We speak your names. We send smoke to the sky. We remember you.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the 13th Amendment freed some enslaved people in 1863. In fact, it was the Emancipation Proclamation that freed enslaved people in the Confederate States that year, while the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery nationwide was ratified in December 1865. The previous version also incorrectly stated the number of enslaved people remaining in Texas in 1865. This version has been corrected.
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