This Juneteenth Is Different
Summers in the South — where I was born and raised — are fond recollections of mine. My mother was a teacher and with summers off each year, any weekend or weekday meant it was ripe to journey elsewhere. There were the faint stirrings of packing and preparing, and the excitement that characterized this busyness, for the four-hour trek from home in Stone Mountain, Georgia, 20 minutes outside of the big city of Atlanta, to where my mother grew up in Huntsville, Alabama.
Whenever we made the trek, usually in early June or July staying for weeks at a time, we’d almost always arrive to a massive Boston butt slowly smoldering on the smoker. Once it was done, one of my aunts meticulously separated chunks of the pork in her hands, the crisp and crunch of the burnt ends making slight smooshing sounds. To the left of the back door on a concrete slab, a cooler sat full of bagged ice and strawberry, grape and orange Chek sodas. Wedges of sliced watermelon sat idly in puddles of their own moisture upon the weathered wooden picnic table in my grandmother’s backyard.
We celebrated family and togetherness in the sluggish heat that dragged on like the drawls falling from all our lips until the fireflies and the first glimmers of the night sky appeared. But we never commemorated or acknowledged Juneteenth.
The one exception to the absence of Juneteenth in these childhood years were the occasions when we attended Juneteenth celebrations at our A.M.E. church back in Stone Mountain. We’d gather on that same day each year, June 19, and sang Lift Every Voice and Sing in a harmonious chorus while listening to a sermon that tarried on. Then we crowded in the teeny fellowship hall sitting around long plastic tables chomping on grilled meat, triangles of watermelon, pound cake, strawberry and cherry pies.
Although myself and my younger sisters enjoyed the service and the food, we still lacked proper contextual understanding. Sure, the history was shared with us about the enslaved Africans finally being free that day but the importance of it was too easily conflated with Fourth of July, which took place mere weeks away.
I later learned, well into my adulthood, Juneteenth is far more integral to Texas history as it was there two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued that a Union Soldier journeyed to Galveston to share the news of slavery’s abolishment. And it was there that the storied tradition of red things — whether pies, drinks or hot links — became the standard for foods to be eaten each year upon looking back. Black Texans hold the key to understanding why this holiday should never be forgotten because it foundationally rests at their feet.
Perhaps that’s why states away in Georgia and Alabama it’s not often celebrated as widely and hugely as it is throughout Texas — whether in Dallas, Houston or Galveston itself with block parties, parades and other fanfare.
Rather than quietly acknowledging the day to myself as I’ve always done, I’d like my reverence for Juneteenth to be different this year.
And it will be different because I feel an urgency to make it so. Maybe it’s because we’re in the midst of a pandemic and seeing so much Black death in real time and being confronted with the grief of what that means, too. Or maybe it’s because of an uprising and a demand for better with Black organizers at the forefront, those who are descendants of enslaved Africans, those who arrived here on this land against their will.
But maybe, chiefly, because within the last year or so, I’ve found so much pride in learning more about the history of Black people and grounding myself and my work in that. Knowing that in looking back upon history — and what Juneteenth symbolizes on a deeper level than I ever thought before — I’m compelled to translate that into holding its significance and what it marks closer.
I want watermelon sprinkled with chunky flakes of sea salt. Maybe some fried chicken. Definitely red Kool-Aid and a strawberry pie. And it is my hope upon eating these things, preparing these things, I am filled with a little something, something to keep me going despite the exhaustion of today’s world engulfed in the heaviness of Black pain.
I want to celebrate Juneteenth in the vein of remembrance of all who we’ve lost and how their sacrifices are invaluable beyond words. How they made a future, the lives many of us are living today, more than a dreamt about notion. I am hoping for a day of joy and gratitude.
Nneka M. Okona is a Nigerian American freelance writer from and based in Atlanta. Her work focuses on food and travel and how race, culture and history, namely of Black people, intersect with those two themes.