How a Chicago Juneteenth Parade Taught Me About the Importance of Black Foodways

published Jun 19, 2020
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African American family watching a parade
Credit: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Getty Images

The great migration brought my grandmother from Mississippi to Chicago like a lot of Black Chicagoans. Many people call us “Southern folk in winter coats,” and they would be right in my estimation because a lot of our foodways are connected to the deep South via slavery and even further back to Africa. All the food we consume today that’s firmly in the soul food category, has deep roots to the South that connects to how Black Americans gather and share moments around food. And Juneteenth is a huge part of that even if you don’t celebrate it.

For my family, birthdays were just as important as the holidays and each year, I would ask my mother to cook soul food, my favorite. I’d expect nothing less than collard greens, dressing, and baked macaroni (my absolute favorite) and a protein, either chicken or pork. What I didn’t realize as a child that I do now is how deeply complex soul food is to the cultural and social heritage of Black Americans, but that changed once I was introduced to Juneteenth through a community-led parade. It was there that I realized how valuable food and community is not only in my family but also across the diaspora.  

When I think about the day of my first Juneteenth parade when I was around nine years old, almost ten, I remember it was hot. The heat from outside rose to the third floor of my apartment, and the air was so thick you could cut it. I walked from the front room to the kitchen for some ice water and that’s when I heard the sounds of cheering and heavy drums through our open windows. No one else in the apartment seemed to pay it any mind, but I could hear the subdued music and saw floats gracefully rolling down the street. Being a curious kid, I opened our back door and the once muted sounds from inside, grew louder and clearer, and it hit me. It was like I could feel the drums and music in my chest.

It wasn’t long after hearing the music and seeing the crowd that I ran to my mother to ask if we could go see what the fuss was all about. The parade started down the 79th street route starting west, probably on Martin Luther King Dr. and ended on the east side at Rainbow Beach Park, the end of the line where the land meets the lake. Standing outside, and to my surprise, the empty streets were buzzing full of Black families watching, waving, and dancing along with the music coming from the floats as they passed by. This parade was much smaller than another Black Chicago parade, Bud Billiken, but it was just as lively. A few floats had choirs singing Miss Juneteenth waving to the crowd, African dance cruising on by, and music everywhere. But I reminisce the most about the “Candy float.” There was nothing too special about it. It wasn’t highly decorated; it didn’t have music playing, just an older woman and man with a bucket of candy on it.

My fond feelings of this float weren’t just because of my love for sweets. I remember an older woman on the float throwing mounds of candy into the crowd on my side of the street where children were lined up (including myself) and I got hit with it. Right on the leg. As other children picked up candy and shared it with each other, I picked up a few pieces and went back to my mother and asked, “What’s this parade for?” You must understand, parades never came past my apartment building, this was new to me. I was enthralled to see so many Black faces — eating, drinking, dancing, and singing along with the music emanating from these floats. It was a celebration; one I would never forget. My mother finally looked down at me and replied “It’s for Juneteenth. The official end of slavery.” The history books would state that the Emancipation Proclamation was the end of slavery, but it wasn’t until much later that I saw Juneteenth as the real Independence Day for Black people.

What I didn’t realize as a child that I do now is how deeply complex soul food is to the cultural and social heritage of Black Americans, but that changed once I was introduced to Juneteenth through a community-led parade.

As the parade began to wind down, one of my mother’s friends told us to follow the parade to Rainbow Beach Park. And when we got there, it was a huge party. I saw platters of staple soul food dishes. We had collard greens, baked macaroni and cheese, potato salad, black-eyed peas, cornbread, fried chicken, fried catfish and spaghetti (spaghetti is a side dish for a number of Black Chicagoans), candied yams, an assortment of cakes and pies, including the traditional red velvet and enough drinks to keep both children and adults happy. 

I sat back and took in the scenery while I ate food from strangers, but honestly, they felt like family because I was brought in and treated as their own. With each bite, I got a taste of history and the food perspectives of their ancestors who shaped that meal; that food was a roadmap symbolizing our contribution to the food world. When I look back on this experience, I see how coming together and eating with other people was in the spirit of Juneteenth and what I know as Black foodways.

I think Black foodways is about the preservation of food that connects us on all levels, the physical, spiritual, and mental. It is connected to the home, to nature, to growing, to eating, and more. It can grow and change with each generation, still holding on to pieces of cultural, historical, and social aspects of Blackness and food. 

For a few years following my first Juneteenth parade, the community kept it going. Then it stopped. But the spirit of gathering around food remained with me. When I would get in the kitchen with my mother and make soul food for holidays, birthdays, and when we felt like it, I wasn’t making it simply for our immediate family, I knew I was making it for our extended family and our “play families” in need because not only was it vital to keep our bond intact, but also because cooking, sharing and celebrating with people everywhere is in our DNA. It’s one of the things I do without a question because I’ve always been taught to understand the growing and sharing food from my grandmother and cooking to heal from my mother.

That Juneteenth parade might have taught me an important part of my history, but what kept that history alive was the food that people created and shared that stood the test of time.

Robin is a Chicago-based writer who writes about food, sustainability, gaming and career education. Robin is currently a Marketing Communications Coordinator for Plates, a new food technology startup that connects passionate food creators with hungry diners. She has a B.A. from DePaul University, an EdM and a PhD from University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and is back at DePaul finishing a MA in Journalism. When she isn’t busy writing and editing, she’s baking. You can find her on Twitter @foodbythebite1.