Why food can be an entry point for learning about Black history on Juneteenth

On Nutrition

Juneteenth is now an official city, state and federal holiday — and the only holiday that addresses the United States’ history of slavery and systemic racism. While Black Americans have long celebrated Juneteenth, like many white Americans, I only learned of Juneteenth a few years ago, thanks to the “whitewashing” of most history books. Now that Juneteenth has gone mainstream, how can white people celebrate and honor this day and its history? By learning, listening and decentering ourselves, I think.

Also known as Emancipation Day, Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865, the day that enslavers in Galveston, Texas, were forced to free enslaved Black people. This was 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect and more than six months after the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in all states was passed by Congress. Black Texans began celebrating Juneteenth (then called Jubilee Day) the next year, and it gradually spread to other states.

Instead of “celebrating” Juneteenth, per se, perhaps white people should “commemorate” this day by viewing it as an opportunity to learn about Black culture and racial inequality and examine our own conscious or unconscious anti-Black biases. (Like it or not, we all have biases, and we can’t overcome them if we can’t acknowledge them.) You could also support Black-owned businesses or make a donation to the Northwest African American Museum or other Black organizations.

Some food for thought: If you’re a white person attending a Juneteenth celebration with a diverse crowd, keep in mind that Black attendees might want to simply celebrate, not educate. Fortunately, we have abundant resources for educating ourselves.

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Black history is American history, and you can learn a lot about people, their history and their culture, by learning about their food. That’s just one reason to watch the first season of the Netflix limited series “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America,” based on the book of the same name by James Beard Award-winning culinary historian, professor, cookbook author and journalist Jessica B. Harris. As Harris notes, in the first episode, “Through food, we can find out that there is more that connects us than that separates us. What we eat and what we discover brings us together.”

Hosted by food writer Stephen Satterfield, “High on the Hog” finally puts to rest the sweet potato versus yam confusion, plus so much more, as it takes viewers from West Africa (where Africans were trafficked to the New World through the trans-Atlantic slave trade) to Charleston, South Carolina, (where many slave ships landed) to the estates of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington (and their enslaved cooks James Hemmings and Hercules, the former of which you can thank for french fries and macaroni and cheese) and finally to Texas, where Juneteenth started. As Satterfield comments when in Benin, “We’ve had to understand where we come from in order to understand ourselves. And the story of food is also the story of who we are.”

There are so many excellent African American cookbooks by Black authors, it’s hard to choose just a few. I have never enjoyed — or learned more from — a cookbook’s intro more than I did the intro to “Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking” by historian, food journalist and cook Toni Tipton-Martin. Even better, each recipe is connected to a story that Tipton-Martin unearthed in her decades of study of African American foodways. “Jubilee” won the James Beard Award for best American cookbook in 2020, and her previous book, “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks” — which highlighted the stories of African American cooks who created much of what we consider American cuisine today — won a 2016 James Beard Award for reference and scholarship.

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Also educational, and mouthwatering, is “Sweet Home Cafe Cookbook: A Celebration of African American Cooking” by Albert G. Lukas, supervising chef of Sweet Home Café at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and “High on the Hog’s” Harris. The book’s recipes reflect a broader perspective of Black cooking in America, drawing from the culinary traditions of Africa and the Caribbean, and how they mingled with the culinary influences of Indigenous peoples and immigrants — including original European colonists — from around the world.

Two books with few recipes but fascinating history are the 2018 James Beard Foundation Book of the Year “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South” by culinary and cultural historian Michael W. Twitty, and “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at A Time,” by food writer, attorney, and certified barbecue judge Adrian Miller, which won a 2014 James Beard Award for reference and scholarship.

Other nonfood books that I have found useful in filling gaps in my own education include “How To Be an Antiracist” and “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” by Ibram X. Kendi, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson, “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” by Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times Magazine, “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia” by Sabrina Strings, “Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness” by Da’Shaun L. Harrison, and “Homegoing: A Novel” by Yaa Gyasi.

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Finally, while you’re on Netflix, I recommend the 2016 award-winning documentary “13th” by Ava DuVernay, who also directed “Selma” (another good viewing choice). It analyzes the criminalization of African Americans as a loophole to the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery. Hard to watch — but important to watch.