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The History And Hope Of Juneteenth

The Juneteenth flag, commemorating the day that slavery ended in the U.S., flies in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, June 17, 2020. (Nati Harnik/AP Photo)
The Juneteenth flag, commemorating the day that slavery ended in the U.S., flies in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, June 17, 2020. (Nati Harnik/AP Photo)

Celebrating Juneteenth. We talk about the push to observe and understand the deeper story of the holiday.


Mary Elliott, historian and specialist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. ( @NMAAHC)

Michael Twitty, culinary historian. Author of the James Beard award-winning book “ The Cooking Gene.” ( @KosherSoul)

Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the department of African and African American studies at Duke University. Founding director of the Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship at Duke University. ( @NewBlackMan)

Interview Highlights

On the history of Juneteenth

Mary Elliott: “On June 19, 1865, Union major general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with 2,000 troops. And when he arrived, he announced that freedom had come. Even though technically the people of Texas — enslaved African Americans — were freed by proclamation 2 1/2 years earlier. It took the civil war to actually implement that proclamation. And so you see 2 1/2 years later, the arrival of the Union army at the western-most Confederate state. The Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved African Americans in the rebelling states. And Texas was one of those. So he read from the General Order No. 3.”

On what followed the announcement of freedom 

Mary Elliott: “Imagine you’re starting off with seemingly nothing. But the fact is, many people left in search of family. Many people left to get away from those who had enslaved them. And they went to manifest their freedom in places they thought would be more likely that they wouldn’t face any retribution or anything that would involve further violence or death. But then there are those who stayed. And so, yes, it was a hardship. You have that relationship, as I stated, employer and hired labor. And so ultimately, you see the Freedmen’s Bureau formed. And the Freedmen’s Bureau was supposed to help transition people from slavery to freedom and enforce these fair labor contracts.”

On the celebration of Juneteenth this year

Mark Anthony Neal: “The reality is there are probably more white Americans who have become aware of Juneteenth in the last two weeks than had been aware of it in any other period of time. And it’s not unusual that we have this dynamic where there are everyday practices and ceremonies in Black communities that white America [is] largely oblivious to. So it feels different in that way. It also feels different because there’s also now a kind of commercial aspect of it that I guess we could have anticipated.

“But when you consider so many email and texts that we’re getting throughout the day from various business and corporate entities, encouraging us to celebrate Juneteenth and take a moment to catch our breath. It just feels a little different in that way. There’s no question that over the last decade or so, Juneteenth has become more important even within the Black community, particularly for young activists. Since there really isn’t anything during the calendar year, say Martin Luther King’s birthday, that would really signal an opportunity for African Americans, Black Americans to come together. To reflect on their moment and to begin to think about a better way for us to go forward. So it is different in this moment.”

On the food traditions of Juneteenth

Michael Twitty: “On these days, Black people celebrate each other. And I think that’s a glorious part of this we need to recognize. The parades are there, and the rodeos, and the quilting bees and all of those traditions. And the barbecues. But this is really about Black joy. This is about the hidden Black joy behind Black food. So often we hear Black food talked about in terms of being a pathology. A problem, yet another problem of those Black folks. But the reality is our food is a form of joy and love we express to each other and also to the world.”

What’s on the menu this year? 

Michael Twitty: “It’s also Shabbat, so I have to plan for that. So jollof rice, definitely. Like one of my favorites. Barbecue chicken, definitely. I’m trying to make my chef, brother, friend, chef Omar Tates’ homemade Kool-Aid with the dehydrated fruit and citric acid. It’s like do it yourself. So, you know, just playing around. Watermelon and feta salad. Having fun with all these different things. I started the morning with a strawberry oatmeal.”

On celebrating Juneteenth amid protests for racial justice and a pandemic

Mary Elliott: “I want people to take a moment and really pause and reflect on the words of that General Order No. 3. To understand the significance of kinship, communities and family, to African Americans and all Americans. And why this moment [is] both of commemoration and celebration. And I need to say this. There are protests out on the street right now. And it is a buildup of so many things.

“But we’re in the midst of a pandemic. And people have taken their short term, their lives in their hands, to prevent death in the long term. But when we open back up, and we have to be face-to-face in those office buildings, in those meetings, think about death by a thousand cuts, microaggressions, implicit bias and blatant racism. And we need to have a serious conversation about race in this nation and how we can change the way that we move forward.”

From The Reading List

Forward: “ The chef who blends kosher and soul talks Juneteenth, food as a form of resistance” — “For chef and culinary historian Michael W. Twitty, studying the food of the past doesn’t just uncover what people used to eat; it reveals the stories they wanted to tell.”

New York Times: “ So You Want to Learn About Juneteenth?” — “Juneteenth, an annual holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, has been celebrated by African-Americans since the late 1800s.”

Washington Post: “ Juneteenth celebrates ‘a moment of indescribable joy’: Slavery’s end in Texas” — “Juneteenth — the holiday now being embraced by Nike, Google, the NFL and the state of New York in the wake of police brutality protests — is one of the oldest celebrations commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.”

The Kojo Nnamdi Show: “ Honoring Juneteenth: Food As A Form Of Celebration” — “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.”

Wall Street Journal: “ Juneteenth Holiday Observed by Growing Number of Companies” — “A small but growing number of employers have moved to observe Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S., as a company holiday.”

New York Times: “ How the Trump Campaign’s Plans for a Triumphant Rally Went Awry” — “Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign manager, needed to find a host city for the president’s triumphant return to the campaign trail, and he didn’t have much time.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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