Juneteenth: A Feast of Freedom

A holiday with over 150 years of history continues to spark celebrations nationwide.
By Rai Mincey
June 15, 2021
black family gathered in prayer around food-filled outdoor table
Credit: Getty Images

I grew up celebrating the Fourth of July in the boiling hot center of Georgia, surrounded by the buoyant voices of my close and distant kin. Our family reunions, usually held over the holiday, were full of the typical fare: matching sweat-stained shirts, small children concocting games around trees, and food as the heart of the event. Light-colored cloth was laid on long tables, and we stood waiting for prayer and the feast that would follow it.

It was a day to revere yeast rolls, field peas, banana pudding, and saucy baked chicken made by infinitely skilled great-aunts. And we did just that — slicing pie and sitting close to those whose lives were woven from the same thread. Those times were special to be sure, but they didn't necessarily mark independence for me. I was well versed in the historical impact of the day, but I knew my ancestors did not enjoy the liberties that our newly formed nation had promised in 1776.

Fast forward to 2020, the first year I celebrated Juneteenth. It was a meal born of a need to carve out a space for myself in an emotionally heavy and politically charged moment. Because I consider the kitchen a sacred space, it's where I began to unfurl the history of the holiday that would become a new tradition.

What Is Juneteenth?

June 19, also known as Juneteenth or Emancipation Day, offers a more inclusive story of independence. It commemorates the day in 1865, when a Union general issued an order from his post in Galveston that declared nearly 250,000 enslaved people in Texas free.

More than two years had passed since the Emancipation Proclamation was written, but news traveled at a snail's pace in the fragmented post-war South, and some accounts claim that plantation owners purposely withheld this knowledge to eek out one last harvest with free labor. Whatever the reason, the executive decree sparked celebrations among the freedmen, and ushered in a new era in American history.

The first Juneteenth celebrations were humble affairs, and often dangerous, as Black citizens' attempts to observe the occasion were met with resistance, and even violence. "The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages," read the order. "They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."

But the joy of an unshackled future proved stronger than discriminatory law. Black people gathered for picnics, rodeos, parades, and Bible readings to memorialize the momentous day in June. This custom eventually spread from Texas throughout the South and around the country during the Great Migration.

Authentic Louisiana Red Beans and Rice on a white plate
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Credit: Mart

Juneteenth Food Traditions

A traditional Juneteenth spread consists of barbeque and red foods: tables lined with hot links, watermelon, hibiscus tea, and red velvet cake are a vibrant display of a rich, deeply complicated history. Delicious down-home offerings like black-eyed peas, pulled pork, cornbread, and strawberry soda are also commonplace. The color red symbolizes not only the bloodshed of enslaved people who never tasted freedom, but the resilience of all Black people in the face of apathy.

Red is also significant in West African culture, symbolizing powerful transformation. This idea came with the enslaved to American shores, eventually helping to unify a people that were just beginning to define their place in a freer world.

Juneteenth celebrations are in direct conversation with the Fourth of July but further deepen our understanding of American history and, therefore, our understanding of each other. The holiday honors Black progress, creativity, and togetherness. More than a meal or passing trend, Juneteenth is a movement that speaks to the ability of food to shape identity and create memories that have, somehow, endured all sorts of atrocities.

I'm looking forward to celebrating again this year, equipped with more extensive knowledge and better cake pans. I feel both comfortably rooted in the traditions of my past and excited for new ways to engage my friends and family. I feel a part of a story greater than myself, and what better way to tell a story than over red beans and rice?